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Austin Senator – a Baylor Alum – Takes Aim at University Sexual Assault

Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, answers a question during a panel discussion on Jan. 31.

Responding to a sexual assault scandal that has rocked Baylor University over the past two years, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has filed legislation to make it easier for college students to report sexual violence.

His five bills, which extend to public and private institutions alike, would require universities to provide an anonymous online reporting process and would prohibit administrators from punishing sexual assault victims or witnesses who reveal that they were drinking underage. Watson's legislation also would establish “affirmative consent” — where the person who initiates sexual contact must receive a verbal "yes" from the other person — as the standard for Texas campuses.

Watson said high-profile cases of universities seriously mishandling sexual assault allegations have created momentum for change. 

A federal lawsuit filed against Baylor in January claims 31 football players at the school committed 52 acts of rape from 2011 to 2014, which is far more than had been previously disclosed by university officials. It alleges a culture in which female students were used to recruit football players with “an implied promise of sex” and suggests coaches helped promote that culture.

Last year in response to the scandal, Baylor fired football coach Art Briles and demoted President Ken Starr, who later left the school. Baylor officials haven't addressed the lawsuit but say the university has made "great progress" in implementing more than 100 recommendations to improve the safety of students.

“There’s no question as a Baylor alum, I love my school, but I’ve been extraordinarily disappointed,” Watson said. “These bills aren’t all about Baylor. We need to change the culture on all campuses.”

Watson said he has “seen, at least in some institutions, very good intentions to make sure young people on our campuses are safe.” He said several schools, for example, already have affirmative consent policies in place. 

“We should all presume a person has a right to privacy and control over her body without her having to object,” Watson said. “When it comes to intimacy, no still means no, but the absence of yes also means no.”

Sofie Karasek, co-founder of the group End Rape on Campus, said in a news release that Watson’s legislation will make it easier for students to come forward.

"For years, victims of sexual assault have been discouraged from reporting, fearing that their cases wouldn't be taken seriously, their assailants wouldn't be punished, or that they themselves could be penalized in cases involving alcohol or drugs," she said.

Chris Kaiser, director of public policy for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, said he thought the new bills successfully acknowledged “survivors’ real experience of trauma.”

It “demands that we abandon outdated thinking about rape,” Kaiser said in a statement.

Although Watson’s bills largely focus on making it easier for students to report sexual assault, he is also working on legislation that targets institutional failure and penalizes schools for failing to be proactive.

Watson has co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, that would hold school employees and student leaders accountable for reporting instances of “sexual harassment, sexual assault, family violence or stalking” to the school’s president within 48 hours of becoming aware of the incident.

From The Texas Tribune

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