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Victims at UT Face Many Paths in Reporting Sexual Assault

Photo by Liang Shi for KUT News

Dealing with a sexual assault is a traumatic process. Especially on college campuses, many victims are unsure of what to do or where to turn, and it can be overwhelming. 

As sexual assault moves further into public discussion, KUT is taking a look at how UT-Austin deals with sexual assault on campus. Today, we’re focusing on the reporting process, which is aimed at helping victims in the wake of sexual assault grapple with the legal, personal and academic fallout.

There are basically two paths a UT student can take to report a sexual assault on campus. One option is to report a crime to UT police. The police, like any other police department, will open a criminal investigation into the matter. If UTPD makes an arrest, the case is handed to the Travis County District Attorney’s office.

“People get confused when they hear the university is conducting an investigation," says David Carter, Chief of UT Police. "If a person comes to us, we will open and initiate that criminal investigation." 

The confusion might stem from the other option for victims: reporting it to Student Judicial Services. Under that route, the University conducts its own investigation. They talk to witnesses, collect evidence, and determine if the accused has violated university rules.  

But it’s not a criminal investigation. It’s administrative.

UT’s Title IX office deals with gender equity issues, including sexual assault. According to officials, students often come forward because they need help dealing with trauma and stress after the incident has occurred.

“Many of them, the reason we get them through the door, is because they have problems with a class," says Jennifer Hammat, UT's Title IX Coordinator. "They’re not sleeping , they’re not eating, their life has been discombobulated and they’re seeking remedy for the behavior.”

If the student files a complaint through the university, the police are not necessarily involved, even if a student is found in violation. The university investigation is private. If a violation is found, the university decides the punishment. Often it’s a suspension, expulsion or orders for the students involved not to communicate with each other. 

“It really is a way in which the institution becomes accountable in a different way to what’s happening in the community," says Noel Busch is with UT’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

But UTPD Chief Carter says it’s important to note the two investigative options are completely separate.

“It’s important for police to stay in their lane. If we were to receive that information [from the administrative investigation] and it goes into the prosecution, it could taint the outcome and the victim would not receive justice and the suspect wouldn't receive a fair trial," says Carter. 

Credit Ilana Panich-Linsman/KUT
Dr. LaToya Hill is the Associate Dean of Students at UT Austin.

  Plus, UTPD and Student Judicial Services are held to different standards when it comes time to determine if the accused is guilty. In a criminal case, the standard is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. But in the administrative route, it’s something called the "preponderance of evidence," which means “it’s more likely than not that a university violation occurred," says LaToya Hill, UT’s Associate Dean of Student Conduct. "The justice system is taking away a person's rights, prison, fines. Whereas our sanctions, yes, could impact a student's academic career. But [they] wouldn't take first amendment rights or their right to live."  

Title IX Coordinator Jennifer Hammat says that lower standard doesn’t mean it’s easier to find students in violation.

"There are days when sure, after brief amount of time we can establish preponderance," she says. "There are others where 15 interviews in you’re still like…it’s really hard to get to that 51 percent.”

But Hammat says the different reporting systems also give victims more power when deciding how they want to address the issue, especially if he or she knows the perpetrator.

“If you want that person to know that wasn’t okay, that is not what you consented to, they need to know they were wrong but your not prepared to say, 'it’s so wrong I should take you to jail,' sometimes this is a better option," Hammat says.

She says that comes down to each individual’s personal decision.

“There are predators," Hammat says. "We want the predators in prison. But there are people who make bad decisions.”

Experts say that’s what makes reporting sexual assaults so difficult—especially for college students. Most of them, 85 to 90 percent, know their attacker.

“When you say rape, you think people with a ski mask jumping out from behind a bush," Hammat says. "That is just so not what we see.”

That's an issue for anyone who has been assaulted, whether they’re in college or not.

“We grapple with that issue with this particular crime," Noel Busch at UT’s Institute for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault says. "And victims understanding what is the next right thing to do about this particular crime and what has happened to them.”

Busch says that’s why having options for reporting is important, even if one may not lead to a criminal charge.

“I think it opens up this avenue in reporting in a different way that’s meeting victims needs in a different way."

Plus, under Title IX, universities must resolve reported crimes like sexual assault within 60 days, which provides swift action compared to a criminal investigation, which may take months or years.

Latoya Hill with Student Judicial Services says in the end, it's important that victims feel heard. 

“We walked them through the process, they could engage in how often they want to participate in the process. There was not victim blaming, we serve in neutral stance, felt they were heard as we move forward," Hill says.

Experts say as sexual assault moves more and more into the public discussion, college campuses are good testing grounds for new policies to address the problem.

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