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How the University of Texas is addressing sexual assault issues

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UT Chancellor William McRaven wants system to “be a leader in ending this epidemic.”

Texas Tech v Texas Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The sexual assault of college students in on-campus and off-campus locations is a huge issue nationwide — it’s not bombastic to call it an epidemic. In the state of Texas, “sexual assault is now more pervasive than in 2003,” according to a study by the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (IDVSA) at The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work, though much of the increase may be a result of a change in standards and better reporting.

Still, whether the actual number of sexual assaults increased or decreased over that period, it doesn’t minimize the prevalence of the issue or minimize its importance.

In light of the recent scandal at Baylor, it is appropriate — and absolutely necessary — to scrutinize the University of Texas to determine the school’s strengths and weaknesses in dealing with sexual assault and larger issues of interpersonal violence. Failing to do so would perpetuate another injustice against victims everywhere and risk allowing those weaknesses to go unaddressed and negatively impact current and future students.

The ugly and unacceptable reality

“One sexual assault is too many,” said UT-Austin President Gregory L. Fenves last fall. “It is essential that we foster a campus that does not tolerate sexual assaults while strongly encouraging victims to come forward and report incidents."

The statement came with the release of a disturbing survey about sexual assault nationwide and at Texas:

11.8 percent of female undergraduates nationwide and 5.5 percent at UT Austin reported victimization due to coercion or absence of affirmative consent.

47.7 percent of all students nationwide and 45.3 percent at UT Austin indicated they have been victims of sexual harassment.

Consistent with other national surveys, rates of assault and misconduct against women were much higher than against men.

At UT Austin, the undergraduate perception that it was “very likely” or “extremely likely” to experience sexual assault or sexual misconduct off campus (14.7 percent) was nearly twice as high as on campus (7.6 percent).

Beyond the goal of doing everything possible to eliminate sexual assaults at Texas — whether on-campus or off-campus — the same survey released other findings that demand immediate action:

According to the AAU survey, 63.3 percent of students nationwide and 61.9 percent at UT Austin think that a report of sexual assault or sexual misconduct would be taken seriously by campus officials. At UT Austin, 47.4 percent of students consider it very or extremely likely that campus officials would conduct a fair investigation, compared with 49.2 percent nationally.

Not only are both of those confidence numbers below the national average, there’s absolutely no reason to settle for the national average — the University of Texas clearly needs to improve in both categories and not only strive for zero sexual assaults, but to also substantially increase student belief in receiving a fair investigation.

Women at Texas and Texas A&M identified the following reasons for only reporting 26 percent of rapes at Texas and six percent of incidences involving “nonconsensual sexual touching" at both schools:

Women at both schools listed feelings of shame, embarrassment or fear of emotional difficulty as the top reasons they didn’t report the assaults. The other primary reason was that the women didn’t think their cases were serious enough to report.

Clearly there are still reporting barriers that Texas — other universities — need to continue to break down.

House Bill 699

Last summer, Texas governor Greg Abbott signed into law House Bill 699, which requires “all public institutions of higher education in Texas to adopt, promote, and review individual policies on campus sexual assault.”

The goal is to increase educational efforts, particularly with freshmen enrolling at orientation, and create a standalone web page that includes “ definitions of prohibited behavior, punishments for violating the policy, and a protocol for reporting and responding to reports of campus sexual assault.” Outlining those definitions is the first step required by the bill, which also requires schools to review policies every two years to make as-needed improvements.

By helping students “understand and exercise their rights," the bill aims to remove some of those reporting barriers that exist, including at Texas.

The “most comprehensive sexual assault study in higher education”

Critics of House Bill 699 made the following contention:

The bill should require the involvement of essential stakeholders — such as law enforcement, medical providers, Title IX investigators, legal advocates, and institutional partners — in the development of campus sexual assault policies.

Concerned with similar issues, the University of Texas System commissioned what it calls the “most comprehensive sexual assault study in higher education."

Started last September, the study will cost $1.7 million over multiple years, focusing on “online questionnaires for students; surveys and focus groups of faculty, staff and campus law enforcement; and a 4-year cohort study of entering freshman to identify the psychological and economic impact of sexual violence.”

After witnessing widespread sexual assault issues in the military, UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven is uniquely suited to understand the challenges that Texas faces in attempting to eliminate sexual assault at Texas.

“I watched as the military struggled with the issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” McRaven told The Huffington Post. “At first we found it hard to believe there was a problem. But once we recognized the magnitude and the effect of the problem on our servicemen and women, we knew we had to move aggressively to resolve it.”

So he quickly took action when he assumed his high-profile role as chancellor of a system with 100,000 employees and more than twice as many students.

“When Chancellor William McRaven took office in January, he felt a responsibility to the UT System’s 217,000 students to ensure their campuses are safe, and if they report crimes, they will be supported,” said Wanda Mercer, UT System’s associate vice chancellor for student affairs, in a statement released by the school. “This study is a proactive approach to an important issue. We are not waiting for a high-profile incident to occur before we do it.”

Participation in the Not Alone report

As part of an initiative from the White House to put an end to sexual assault on campus, President Obama formed the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault in early 2014.

The task force set out to accomplish the following four tasks:

Identify the scope of the problem on college campuses,

Help prevent campus sexual assault,

Help schools respond effectively when a student is assaulted, and

Improve, and make more transparent, the federal government’s enforcement efforts. We will continue to pursue additional executive or legislative actions in the future.

The University of Texas was one of four schools chosen to participate in the initiative.

Institute of Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault

A collaboration of four partners — the School of Social Work, the School of Law, the School of Nursing, and the Bureau of Business Research — this research institute at the University of Texas touts itself as the “only research institute in the nation that approaches research about interpersonal violence from a multi-disciplinary focus.”

In an attempt to replace “tradition with science,” the institute recently conducted research in conjunction with the UT System Office of Director of Police to “fill gaps in current research and identify best practices in campus police response to sexual assault.”

Commissioned as part of the Not Alone initiative, the result was a 170-page report entitled Blueprint for Campus Police: Responding to Sexual Assault that lays out new investigative protocol for police at all 14 UT campuses.

“Let the victim know that they are safe,” reads one part of the report. “Let the victim know they will not be judged,” and “understand that a victim’s alcohol or drug use is an issue of increased ‘vulnerability rather than culpability.’”

The UT System director of police noted that the science aspect of the research was profoundly important because it advanced understanding of how neurobiology and victimology combine to influence the ways in which sexual assault survivors deal with police.

It’s an important development that the director of police calls the “crown jewel” of the study because, according to the report, “trauma victims often omit, exaggerate, or make up information when trying to make sense of what happened to them or to fill gaps in memory.”

As a result, the report notes that those aren’t necessarily signs of dishonesty or a false claim, but rather the result of a traumatizing incident.

The school is hopeful that the report can serve as a blueprint for other colleges and at the time of the release, Collin College in McKinney had already adopted the protocols recommended in it.

In late March, the report also resulted in the University of Texas Police Department adding a dedicated detective focused on sexual assault investigations. The female officer chosen for the role began in April.

“Having a female detective that female survivors can talk to will hopefully ease some of the nervousness and nerves, and make them feel more comfortable, which will in turn lead to a better investigation,” Lieutenant Charles Bonnet said. “Our department is expanding, the university has been expanding just trying to keep pace. With the medical school addition, our department is growing and we’ve started specializing in different things.”

The department at UT-Austin wants to add over 30 officers within the next several years and has increased bike patrols around campus.

In addition, the institute also conducted the aforementioned studies on Sexual Assault in Texas and the AAU’s Campus Sexual Assault survey.

Counseling and Mental Health Crisis Center Line

The University of Texas has a 24/7 crisis line available every day — even on holidays —that allows students to speak with a trained counselor. The number is 512-471-CALL (2255) . There is also a 24-hour Behavior Concerns Advice Line at 512-232-5050.

Based out of UT-Austin, the hotline serves the entire UT system as a result of a $1.1 million 2014 investment in crisis hotlines for every academic and health institution in the system until 2019.

At the same time the Board of Regents approved funding for the crisis hotline, it also allocated $1.4 million over three years for the “bystander initiative,” which focuses on educating the campus about those suffering from a mental health disorder:

The bystander initiative trains faculty, staff and students to recognize and mitigate hazing, substance and alcohol abuse, sexual assault, suicide and other mental health issues associated with people 18 to 25 years old, a common age of onset for some mental health disorders.

Online reporting system

While the University of Texas Title IX office does have basic online reporting system, there is a different online reporting system created by projectcallisto.org that is an outgrowth of what sexual assault survivors say they want the most, as outlined by BON commenter Tara DeMarco in a must-read piece:

The ability to report their assault online first, rather than a first step involving a police officer or campus rep who may not believe them --€” or even, in most despicable cases like Baylor's, actively cover it up and even pressure them into going away quietly.

The option to preserve their statement in a secure, time-stamped document, even if they aren't ready to report it yet.

An option to report the assault only if someone else reports the same assailant.

The Pepper Hamilton report commissioned by Baylor recommended that the school "explore the use of available technology for reporting, responding, and tracking cases (item IV.12)." The system developed by Callisto is currently under use by the University of San Francisco and Pomona College would seem to make tremendous sense for any university attempting to accomplish those objectives.

McRaven is already aware of the reporting system and is now connected with Callisto CEO Jen Ladd after a conversation last week with DeMarco. She told BON that he didn’t make any promises before hearing the pitch from Callisto, but she did express optimism regarding McRaven’s interest in such a system and the overall process of addressing the sexual assault epidemic.

“His genuine passion for the topic was palpable,” she said. “He seems very committed to making Texas a leader in ending this epidemic. It made me really excited for and proud of UT to hear the real feeling in his voice.”

Title IX Coordinator LaToya Smith is also aware of the system and has some reservations, but will continue to explore options, including Callisto, which she says students like.

If you’re interested in supporting this reporting system, please contact Chancellor Bill McRaven at 512.499.4201 or chancellor@utsystem.edu and consider signing the petition that McRaven and Texas head football coach Charlie Strong will receive.

Moving forward

By a number of indicators, the University of Texas has engaged in and continues to engage in a variety of efforts to understand and eradicate sexual assault and to support victims of sexual assault — the Institute of Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault is the only one of its kind and the survey commissioned by McRaven is unique, too.

But until all students feel comfortable and confident in the reporting system, the school hasn't achieved the necessary standard of ensuring the long-term safety and mental health of each and every one of those students.

And students, alumni, faculty, administrators, and every member of the University of Texas community have to remain vigilant and proactive in holding the school to the highest level of accountability in making the absolutely critical advancements.

It’s on us.