How UT got it right on sexual assault

Photo by Gabriel Cristóver Pérez

More than 50 colleges are currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for mishandling sexual assault cases. But right now at the University of Texas at Austin, we’re seeing a model for how college administrations should handle these cases: by supporting survivors from the very beginning.

Head football coach Charlie Strong may be the best inoculation against a culture of rape on campus that we’ve seen in our 40 years of providing services to the survivors of sexual assault. Three of Strong’s five core principles relate directly to abuse or the actions that lead to it: respect women, don’t use guns and avoid drugs.

Strong deserves credit for naming these behaviors and following through with immediate suspensions of Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander from the team (as well as several other players who couldn’t meet these expectations, which are, let’s be honest, not exactly a high bar to clear). The suspensions send a powerful message across the multimillion-dollar Longhorn football universe: Respect for women is a prerequisite for playing football for the university.

This was followed by a public statement from UT-Austin President Bill Powers in which he backed up the coach and said the university “vigorously investigate[s] all allegations so we can take the appropriate action.”

This is where change begins: at the top. Right now in the U.S., only three out of every 100 rapists ever receives any jail time. The news this summer has been full of stories of colleges where a culture of suspicion, silence and intimidation was devastating for women who reported sexual assaults.

On too many campuses, victims don’t believe their allegations will be taken seriously, so they don’t report them at all — which allows rapists to attack again and again (an average of six times, according to aggregate research). Make no mistake: UT-Austin is no exception, at least not yet — while one in five women report being sexually assaulted in their time at college, only nine cases of sexual assault have been reported to UT-Austin police in the past four years.

Yet the repercussions of these strong statements from leadership are already being felt at the university. The Houston Chronicle reported that the school has experienced “sharp growth” in allegations of sexual assault since the story broke. That’s what happens when victims begin to trust in a system that treats their experiences as crimes rather than misunderstandings that are best swept under the rug.

But there’s another piece to the UT-Austin story that deserves attention. According to Powers’ statement, every student on campus receives sexual assault prevention training. The Austin American-Statesman reported that the first call to police in this case came from a bystander, who reported a “crying, barefoot and ‘disheveled’” woman in the dorm lobby. That shows that some anonymous student took the time to recognize his or her responsibility to get help for a woman in distress.

I don’t know if you can trace that back to the training that students received or not. But I do know that an essential piece in creating a culture of accountability is to train bystanders to recognize their role in preventing assaults and supporting survivors. Would the police have been called if this incident had happened on another campus? With an 18 percent rate of report on Texas campuses, the answer to that question is all too clear.

College campuses should be a home away from home for their students. Unfortunately, at schools in Texas and across the nation, the focus of a sexual assault investigation too often centers on what a victim was wearing, how much she had to drink, or whether she really did want to have sex and now just feels bad about it.

But with their recent words, and in working to ensure that students and staff are prepared to respond to sexual assault with sensitivity, respect and accountability — regardless of who the perpetrators are — Powers and Strong set an example for the rest of the country.

Let’s all hope that what starts here changes the world. 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Julia Spann

Executive director of SafePlace