A survey of University of Texas undergraduates found that 15 percent of women reported being raped while enrolled at the Austin campus.
The survey result, revealed Thursday during a Capitol hearing on four bills to address what was described as an “epidemic” of sexual assaults on college campuses, jolted several senators and brought promises of action from university officials.
“Fifteen percent? That is just shocking to me,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound.
State Sen. Joan Huffman, author of one of the bills discussed during Thursday’s meeting of the Senate State Affairs Committee, said the result from the soon-to-be-released survey underlined the need for action.
“It’s beyond troubling. It’s shocking, it’s unacceptable, and it has to stop,” said Huffman, R-Houston.
According to UT spokesman J.B. Bird, 15 percent of undergraduate women recently surveyed at the Austin campus reported having been raped, “either through force, threat of force, incapacitation or other forms of coercion such as lies and verbal pressure.”
The result, which will be included as part of a wide-ranging report on sexual assault and misconduct at all 13 institutions in the UT System, was “highly disturbing,” Bird acknowledged.
“UT Austin is committed to addressing sexual misconduct by speaking about it openly and developing programs and initiatives to end sexual violence, change behaviors and discipline offenders,” he said.
“The first injustice committed in every assault or inappropriate behavior is the act itself, but the second injustice is often the silence of the community surrounding the survivor,” UT President Gregory L. Fenves said. “We must not be silent anymore, and we must not be afraid to face the very real problems that exist at our university and in society in general.”
4 bills offered
Senators began work Thursday on related bills, including three by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, to begin addressing the problem.
The bipartisan effort would make it harder for universities to cover up sexual assaults — providing better campus safety data for parents and prospective students — while making it easier to report attacks involving students.
Huffman’s proposal, Senate Bill 576, would require employees of public and private universities to report allegations of sexual assault, harassment and dating violence to the school’s Title IX coordinator. Those who fail to report an allegation would be fired and could face up to 180 days in jail, though employees found to have intentionally concealed a sexual assault could spend up to one year in jail.
“There has to be teeth, and they need to be sharp,” Huffman told the State Affairs Committee.
Student officers — such as leaders of fraternities, sororities and other organizations — also would be required to report assaults they had witnessed or were told about. Violators would face expulsion.
“I think this bill … is a good step towards transparency. Until we can understand the numbers and see what is happening in our higher education institutions, it’s hard to fix the problem,” Huffman said.
Huffman said her proposal worked well with three bills by Watson that would:
• Require colleges and universities to allow students to report sexual assault, harassment and dating violence through a prominent link on the school’s website. Senate Bill 968 also would allow for anonymous reporting.
• Exempt sexual assault victims and witnesses from violations of student conduct codes for such offenses as underage drinking. Senate Bill 969 is intended to remove barriers that have kept many assaults from being reported, Watson said.
• Require every Texas university and college to specify that “affirmative consent” is required before sexual activity. Under policies required by Senate Bill 970, “the absence of ‘no’ does not mean yes,” consent could be withdrawn at any time, and there is no consent if one person is incapacitated by drugs, alcohol or other factors, Watson said.
“We have to change the culture” on campuses, Watson said.
A committee vote on the four bills could be taken as early as Monday. Approved bills would be sent to the full Senate.
During Thursday’s committee hearing, about a dozen sexual assault survivors spoke in favor of the bills. Several recalled campus investigations that blamed the victims because they had been drinking, while others said they declined to report attacks because of guilt or fear of being ostracized.
Several women said they couldn’t eat or be alone months later. One said she skipped classes, staying in bed because the pain went away when she slept.
Huffman said her bill would require schools to release a report each semester on the number of allegations, the disposition of campus investigations and “any actions taken.”
“That might be important for (parents and prospective students) to know how many rapes are on that campus and what the culture is at that campus,” she said.
Several senators expressed reservations.
State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said he favored Huffman’s bill but worried that a provision that keeps the name of alleged victims confidential could impinge on the right to confront an accuser.
State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, also favored the bill but said he was concerned about the opportunity for false accusations of sexual assault, perhaps in retaliation for a soured relationship.
But Huffman said her bill, intended to ensure accurate reporting, had nothing to do with criminal and administrative investigations into assault allegations.
“This bill doesn’t interfere or usurp any other authority. It’s simply a way to get the public the information so we know what’s going on in these universities,” she said.