Published 10:32 am Friday, March 24, 2017

The State Affairs Committee on Thursday took up a number of bills intended to deal with the growing problem of sexual assault on campus. Committee Chair and Houston Senator Joan Huffman said that media reports and research demonstrate how pervasive this problem is. “It’s beyond troubling, it’s shocking, it’s unacceptable and it has to stop,” she told members.  She said a forthcoming study based on surveys at the University of Texas at Austin will show that 15 percent of female students have been the victims of rape. The incidence of all sexual assaults is even higher, said Huffman, with 1 in 5 women who attend university experiencing some form of sexual violence.

Her bill, SB 576, aims to help the state grasp the scope of the problem and combat campus cultures that try to cover up these crimes. It would require any employee at a public or private school to report incidences of sexual assault to the campus Title IX coordinator. Officers of student organizations, including fraternities and sororities, would also have to report incidents. It requires those reports move up the chain of authority, and requires campus presidents to report to the Boards of Regents the number of sexual assault accusations, investigations, the disposition of those investigations, and any disciplinary action taken. Those reports would be available to the public. “No one can say, ‘We didn’t know this was going on in our campus, we didn’t realize it was this big of a problem’,” said Huffman.

Huffman said she added criminal penalties for failure to report to ensure compliance. “There have to be teeth and they need to be sharp,” she said.  An employee that fails to report an incident would be fired and subject to a class B misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to a $1500 fine and 180 days in jail. If the investigation shows an intentional attempt to cover-up the incident, that offense moves to a class A misdemeanor, which can mean a year in jail. Student officers that fail to report incidents could be suspended for a full year.

Senator Kirk Watson of Austin offered three other bills dealing with reporting of sexual assault.  SB 968 would require universities to create systems by which victims can report sexual assault electronically, and those systems must have a method to protect the identities of the victims if they desire. Watson pointed to studies that show that the rate of reporting is well below the actual incidence of attacks, as low as five percent in some cases. Watson’s second bill would give amnesty to accusers to protect them from violations of student conduct code. For example, if a person was not of an age to drink, and was assaulted at a campus party with alcohol present, fear of punishment for underage drinking could discourage that person from reporting. SB 969 would give amnesty for that violation of student conduct.  Watson offered a third bill, SB 970, one to require universities to adopt an affirmative consent policy with respect to sexual assault and develop awareness campaigns about that policy. Affirmative consent requires that people are clearly willing, through words or actions, to engage in sexual activity, can withdraw consent at any time, and cannot be impaired or unconscious. “Yes means yes, but the absence of no does not mean yes,” said Watson.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, March 27 at 2 p.m.