As sexual assault incidents on college campuses continue to gain statewide attention, local legislators and college officials in Texas are working to make sure universities are as safe as possible for students.
State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, filed Senate Bill 576 on Jan. 23 to penalize staff and student leaders who do not report incidents of campus sexual assault. The bill would charge a university employee with a Class A or Class B misdemeanor if the individual is found guilty of intending to conceal the incident.
Class B misdemeanors are punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 or 180 days in jail, and Class A misdemeanors are punishable by a fine of up to $4,000 or one year in jail.
If a student who was assaulted tells another person affiliated with the university, that individual is required to report it to the Title IX coordinator, should the bill become law. If a university staff member does not report it, the employee could be charged with a Class B misdemeanor.
The bill passed through the Senate April 4. It still must be passed through the House and signed by the governor to become law.
Local college procedures
University of Houston and Houston Community College provide several resources for victims of sexual assault, and both are holding events for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which is observed nationwide. UH is hosting trainings, seminars and discussion groups that will cover topics from sexual violence in fraternities and sororities to the intersection of sexual assault and religion.
HCC also is hosting presentations on the issue at its campuses.
Daniela Monkiewicz, director of investigations in UH office of equal opportunity services, said the definition of sexual consent has changed over time.
“In the 90s, it was, ‘no means no,’” she said. “Now it’s more than that. Now it’s, ‘yes means yes.’ You have to take the assumption idea out of it. It might be a mood killer, but you need to get a verbal indication from your partner that you’re allowed to do something before you go in and do it.”
When a sexual assault is reported, the faculty member or staff member is required to forward the report to Monkiewicz’s office. Representatives of the office then meet with the victim to address any immediate issues, such as needing to change classes or living arrangements.
Monkiewicz said the university encourages students to go to the police. However, she said federal rules require universities to honor victims’ wishes if they choose not to involve police, unless there is a belief that someone is in imminent danger.
As a safeguard against false accusations, the university gives anyone who is accused the opportunity to respond to such accusations.
“We make sure the respondent is allowed to reply and provide his evidence to contradict any claims being made,” Monkiewicz said. “We don’t take a report on its face.”
Under Title IX policies in place by the U.S. Department of Education, all federally-funded schools must have procedures for handling complaints of sexual discrimination, harassment or violence. In cases of sexual violence, schools are prohibited from encouraging or allowing mediation, rather than a formal hearing of the complaint.
Additional reporting by Emily Donaldson