Debate on bill to prevent campus sexual assault turns to rights of accused

In the wake of a statewide sexual assault crisis on university campuses, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, filed a bill Jan. 23 to penalize staff and student leaders who do not report incidents of campus sexual assault. The Senate State Affairs Committee debated the proposed bill Thursday.

"No one can pass the buck," Huffman said.

Without reporting the assault, a university employee could face a Class B misdemeanor or a Class A misdemeanor if it is shown the individual intended to conceal the incident should the bill become law.

Class B misdemeanors are punishable by up to a $2,000 fine or 180 days in jail and Class A misdemeanors are punishable by up to a $4,000 fine or one year in jail.

Students would face expulsion should the bill become law.

Huffman said after speaking with officials at The University of Texas, she learned roughly 15 percent of students are sexually assaulted while on campus. She added UT officials plan to release the most recent data on sexual assaults next week.

A report released in 2015 from UT stated that 18.5 percent of women on campus experienced sexual assault.

Debate took an unexpected turn, however, when Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, started questioning Huffman on what would happen should someone report an incident based on a rumor or hearsay.

"If we could only report rapes based on eyewitnesses, then only half of the rapes in the country would be prosecuted," Huffman said.

The Title IX coordinator at UT clarified that during her office's investigation process, she explores third-party reports as well.

Birdwell continued on by saying he was concerned that the accuser's identity would be confidential and those accused might not be able to face their accuser.

"I am profoundly concerned with the rights of the accused," Birdwell said.

Huffman agreed saying she, too, was concerned about those rights, but no part of her bill would affect the accuser.

"We're actually not looking at the accuser in this bill ... this is about reporting incidences," Huffman said.

Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, recognized the strong need for a bill like Huffman's but asked for a balance. He referenced an incident at Duke University where a number of students on the lacrosse team were falsely accused of sexual assault.

A report by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center states that somewhere between 2 and 10 percent of reported rapes are false reports.

Schwertner also questioned whether those stepping into student leadership roles would understand their responsibility via this bill.

"You choose to be the president of a fraternity ... you plan parties, and you have a degree of responsibility if an assault occurs," Huffman said. "The intent [of the bill] is to let the institutions know that you are not going to cover this up."

The bill was left pending in committee. The committee also discussed several bills by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, which would make it easier for students to report sexual assaults and would require universities to implement a standard of affirmative consent.

"The absence of no does not mean yes," Watson said.
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