- By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz American-Statesman Staff
A package of measures addressing sexual assault involving college students has come together in recent days, with two bills bound for Gov. Greg Abbott and a third expected to be approved this weekend by the House and Senate.
The measures include protections against prosecution and other sanctions for underage drinking by victims or witnesses of sexual assault who report such incidents, as well as provisions requiring public and private institutions of higher learning to offer online reporting, including anonymous reporting.
The author of all three measures is Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who earned two degrees from Baylor University, where an ongoing sexual assault scandal, including allegations of a coverup, led to the resignation of the school’s president and the firing of its football coach. The scandal also exposed fault lines that hinder sexual assault reporting at many campuses.
“What we’ve done is go a long way toward achieving my goal of making it easier to report sexual assault and helping to heal survivors, and I think it also helps us to begin changing the culture on our campuses,” Watson told the American-Statesman. “From my perspective, we’ve had a very successful session on sexual assault.”
Abbott’s spokesman said the governor agrees. “Gov. Abbott’s top priority is to ensure the safety and security of all Texans, including those on our college campuses across the state,” said John Wittman. “The governor applauds the Legislature for addressing campus sexual assault and reporting, and for their efforts to make our campuses safer for students.”
The first measure approved by the Legislature was Senate Bill 966, which would amend the Alcoholic Beverage Code so that a minor reporting a sexual assault would be exempt from prosecution for underage drinking. The House signed off on the bill May 19, and it was sent to the governor on Monday.
On Thursday evening, the Senate approved another reporting-related measure, SB 969, after it was broadened by the House to cover not only incidents of sexual assault but also sexual harassment, dating violence and stalking.
Under the measure’s provisions, students reporting such incidents who are witnesses or victims could not be deemed in violation of a school’s code of conduct if they were engaged in underage drinking or another activity that would otherwise be a violation at the time of the incidents. The provisions would apply to incidents on or off campus, and to public and private institutions of higher learning alike. The measure is expected to be sent to Abbott shortly.
The Senate and House have also passed SB 968, albeit somewhat different versions of the measure, which would require colleges and universities to offer electronic reporting, including anonymous reporting, of sexual assault, sexual harassment, dating violence and stalking, whether on or off campus.
The House version includes an amendment requiring schools to inform students by email and in freshman orientation of the protocol for reporting. The amendment would let an alleged victim and alleged perpetrator drop a course in which both are enrolled without an academic penalty, and it calls on schools to provide separate counselors when possible to the parties.
Watson said he likes the House amendment but wants to make sure it covers public and private schools. The Senate voted at his behest to have a House-Senate conference committee tweak the bill as needed. It would then return to both chambers for final votes.
Two measures dealing with sexual assault reporting did not advance.
House Bill 16, authored by Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, would have required schools to have a disciplinary process that grants the accused and the alleged victim equal access to relevant evidence, and it would have required training for campus police officers in responding to allegations of sexual assault and harassment, dating violence and stalking.
Watson, the Senate sponsor of HB 16, said he declined to bring it up on the Senate floor out of concern that there would have been amendments offered that he didn’t like, including some provisions of SB 576, by Joan Huffman, R-Houston, which passed the Senate but died in the House. Her bill would have required university employees and officers of student organizations to report sexual assaults they learn about on pain of termination or expulsion, respectively.
Watson said he shares the concerns of survivor groups that say the mandatory student reporting would have a chilling effect on the reporting of sexual assault. The National Women’s Law Center, Deeds Not Words, Girls Inc. and more than a dozen other groups said forcing certain students to report incidents of sexual assault against survivors’ wishes would deprive victims of crucial support in the wake of violence, sow confusion and needlessly punish those who respect the wishes of survivors.