Legislative progress mandates institutional reassessments of sexual assault

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Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

During the 85th session, the Texas Legislature sent three bills addressing college rape to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. Two of these bills prohibit the prosecution of minors who report sexual assault, harassment, or other forms of sexual misconduct while illegally consuming alcohol. The third bill mandates that Texas universities have anonymous online platforms for students to report such assaults and misconduct.

While these measures present a heartening turn in the legislation regarding rape on campus, significant adjustments must be made by universities in order to accommodate expanded understandings of the problem of rape on campus.

All three bills were introduced and authored by Austin Democrat Sen. Kirk Watson, who was partially motivated to address college rape by the recent cover-up scandal at Baylor University — his alma mater. Watson told the Austin American-Statesman that he believes the legislature’s recent step forward “helps us to begin changing the culture on our campuses.”

Specifically, two of these measures target the insidious connection between college drinking culture and sexual assault. Nationally, about half of all sexual assaults involve a victim who is intoxicated. UT’s recent sexual assault survey revealed that at UT, 69 percent of all assaults involved a victim who had been drinking. Many of these victims are underage and , prior to these advancements, had potentially faced disciplinary action for underage drinking.

Victims who decline to report assaults — about 2 out of every 3 victims  — often cite fear of repercussions. Many victims, especially in college settings where the majority of these assaults happen, were under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs and fear prosecution if they report. These measures empower underage students who are victims of sexual assault to report without fear of the consequences and present a fundamental step in the process of increasing assault reporting on campus.

The third bill introduced a requirement for schools to maintain an online platform for students to report misconduct anonymously. This is an essential step in encouraging students to report assaults by removing much of the stigma and emotional difficulties associated with reporting in person. By allowing anonymous reporting, these measures allow for a more accurate understanding of the scope of the problem on campus. A house amendment to this bill required that universities show students how to access this platform during new student orientation, a change that is designed to alleviate difficulty victims may have with not knowing or understanding the process of reporting.

These measures indicate a willingness on the part of the legislature to prioritize the wellbeing of students. However, once these bills leave the legislature their success rests on the schools that enforce them. In order to initiate significant and lasting changes, schools like the University of Texas need to effect a paradigm shift. Only by acknowledging that most underage students are assaulted while drinking, and that the majority are too scared to report, can universities address the rape epidemic on campus.

Anderson is a Plan II and history sophomore from Houston. She is a Columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Lizabeen