Written by Varun Hukeri.

Imagine the relationship between a university and its students through the lens of the social contract theory. Students voluntarily agree to follow the rules of the university, and in turn the university ensures a set of guarantees to the students. If a student violates the rules of the university, they face certain consequences. What happens when the university fails to ensure its guarantees to students?

The issue of sexual assault and interpersonal violence has plagued university officials and Texas policymakers for a long time.

That’s why Sierra Smith, a junior at Baylor University and a sexual assault survivor, has dedicated her time to disseminating information and resources on the pervasiveness of sexual assault on college campuses and how to prevent it.

Smith was a speaker at the Texas Tribune Festival in September, and joining her on the panel “The Right Response on Sexual Assault” were State Senator Kirk Watson, State Representative J.M. Lozano, ESPN reporter Paula Lavigne, and Associate Vice Chancellor of the University of Texas System Wanda Mercer. Among other things, the key focus of the panel was on the current failures of universities to address the growing problem of sexual assault as well as potential policy responses.

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Morgan Smith, reporter for The Texas Tribune, moderated the “Right Response on Sexual Assault” panel featuring Paula Lavigne, J.M. Lozano, Wanda Mercer, Sierra Smith and Kirk Watson. Image by The Texas Tribune.

Dr. Mercer oversaw one of the most comprehensive reports published on the issue, “An Empirical Study of Prevalence and Perceptions of Sexual Harassment, Stalking, Dating/Domestic Abuse and Violence, and Unwanted Sexual Contact,” published in Spring 2017. The data was drawn from the Cultivating Learning and Safe Environments survey conducted at 13 UT institutions over a year.

The findings of the study were concerning.

At UT Austin alone, 15 percent of undergraduate women surveyed said that “they had been raped, either through force, threat of force, incapacitation or other forms of coercion such as lies and verbal pressure.”

Another 28 percent of undergraduate women were the victims of harassment, and 13 percent of graduate and professional school women said the same. This data has a strong correlation with statistics nationwide collected from a metastudy of reports from the Department of Justice.

Despite this data, finding a concrete solution hasn’t been an easy task for three reasons. Firstly, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), which operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline, finds that 4 out of 5 female students ages 18-24 do not report cases to law enforcement, usually for personal reasons or for fear of reprisal.

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Image by The Texas Tribune.

Secondly, some universities downplay cases of sexual assault out of fear of tarnishing their reputation. In the Baylor University sexual assault scandal, University officials failed to take action regarding the allegations and, as Smith pointed out, shielded accused athletes in an effort to protect the reputation of their teams.

Lastly, policymakers have been ineffective in addressing sexual assault. After Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced plans to rescind Title IX sexual assault guidelines in September of this year, this has become more apparent.

The panelists offered some possible solutions to these three problems. Dr. Mercer has helped the UT System to create a policy of including a notation of a disciplinary case on the student’s transcript, so any future school will know to ask questions before admitting the student.” This simple action undermines an accused individual’s attempt to transfer or withdraw from the University.

The two policymakers on the panel, Representative Lozano and Senator Watson, expressed support for legislation to address the issue. During the 85th Texas Legislative Session, Senator Watson introduced SB 966 and 969, which addressed amnesty for students who report interpersonal violence to law enforcement but are also caught drinking while underage. He also proposed SB 968, which makes it easier to report such cases by creating an electronic mechanism. All three were signed into law.

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Image by The Texas Tribune.

It’s clear that sexualt assault and interpersonal violence is a pressing issue at UT and at universities across the country. As seen at the Texas Tribune Festival, there are individuals who are dedicated to ensuring that safety is paramount in institutions of higher education. Insofar as underreporting, institutional shielding and unsubstantial policy continue to impede reform, there will continue to be a lack of justice for people like Sierra Smith and thousands of people across the country who face this issue everyday.

Featured image by The Texas Tribune.


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