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Abilene Reporter-News (Texas)


AUSTIN - Officials at public and private colleges and universities in Texas would face jail time if they withhold knowledge of sexual violence against a student under one part of a package of legislation that could reach the Senate floor this week.

State Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican, said she filed Senate Bill 576 to help "change the culture" at institutions of higher learning where instances of sexual harassment, dating violence and even rape go unreported, uninvestigated and unpunished.

"I'm not pointing fingers at Baylor because, clearly, there's (similar) problems all over the United States," Huffman said. "But as to what happened at Baylor, if it did happen (under her legislation), somebody would go to jail."

Huffman's bill is one of three pieces of legislation so far passed without opposition by the Senate State Affairs Committee and sent to the full chamber for consideration. They were filed early in the 2017 legislative session amid widespread reports that staff members of the Baylor football program were aware of numerous cases of rape and assault against women but did not report the incidents.

An investigation found that the university for years had mishandled claims of sexual violence and assault. Then-football coach Art Briles was fired and athletic director Ian McCaw resigned. Ken Starr, the university president at the time, was demoted and then he resigned.

Under Huffman's bill, someone who witnesses or is told about an instance of sexual violence would be required to initiate a reporting process that would lead both to the university president and then to the board of regents. The findings, minus the name of any victims, would be made public.

The measure would protect the identity of any victim, and no victim would be required to make a report.

Someone with the duty to report but does not would face a class B misdemeanor, which carries penalties of up to a $2,000 fine and up to 180 days in a county jail. If someone with the duty to report deliberately withheld the information, it would be a class A misdemeanor, which carries double the fine and double the jail time of class B.

In addition to university officials, officers of student organizations would also be covered by the legislation.

A 2015 study by the Association of American Universities, found that 23 percent of female college students responded that they have been the target of several forms of unwanted sexual aggression. More than 1 in 10 of the women said the aggression included rape.

Last month, the University of Texas at Austin released results of a survey in which 15 percent of female undergraduates said "they had been raped, either through force, threat of force, incapacitation or other forms of coercion such as lies and verbal pressure."

In addition, 12 percent said they had experienced attempted rape and nearly three in 10 said they had been the victim of unwelcoming sexual touching.

"It's time to change the culture on college campuses, and Texas should lead the way," Huffman said.

In addition to Huffman's bill, the State Affairs Committee also passed:

Senate Bill 968, which requires institutions to provide an option to students and employees to electronically report an incident of sexual assault, family violence or stalking. The electronic option must include the option to report anonymously.

Senate Bill 969, which provides amnesty to students who commit a student conduct code violation related to a sexual assault incident if they are a victim of that sexual assault or a reporting witness.

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April 4, 2017


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