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No silver bullet in the fight against campus sexual assault: lessons from UT Austin

One of the largest public universities in the U.S. is hoping to become a leader when it comes to tackling sexual assault on its campus.

The University of Texas at Austin has more than 40,000 undergraduate students and it is this school in the heart of Texas that the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault enlisted to “lead by example.” One of the reasons is its prevention program, which has been in place for 13 years.

“We were looking ahead and seeing that this issue across the nation was an important one to address,” explained Jane Bost, the founder of Voices Against Violence, to Fusion’s Alicia Menendez. Bost, who is also the Associate Director for Prevention and Outreach Services at UT’s Counseling and Mental Health Center, founded the program in 2001 and has since received multiple grants from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Voices Against Violence is a program that seeks to address issues of sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking that take place on campus. The program has taken a holistic approach to these issues and has awareness and prevention campaigns as well as counseling services available for those students who might need them. For some administrators it is this holistic approach that has made UT a leader when it comes to battling sexual assault.

“We’ve had a direct program for 14 or 15 years. We’ve had research looking at the issue. We’ve had a police department responding to that for those numbers of years. We care about the 40 acres, we care about the people in the 40 acres,” Noel Busch- Armendariz told Menendez. Noel is the Director of the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at UT. Her team has done extensive research on the subject and they have developed a toolkit for law enforcement agencies to use when dealing with cases of this nature.

The toolkit offers concrete examples for ways to communicate with those reporting the crime. It advises law enforcement to use phrases like, ““I know reporting a sexual assault is hard. It took a lot of courage for you to make this call,” and “I know this is overwhelming. This is not an easy process to deal with, especially after what you’ve already gone through.”

Menendez asked Noel about the emphasis on language in the phrases, “why is language so important?” Noel explained that the reason for this was rooted in a culture of victim-blaming that exists today. The toolkit has yet to be shared with the UT Police Department.

Prevention and awareness are merely a part of UT’s approach. This summer two Longhorn players were arrested and charged for alleged sexual assault on campus. The football players were suspended from the team by Head Coach Charlie Strong and removed from their dorms. The players plead not guilty and their case is still under investigation. When the crime was reported, administration and the UT police department launched separate investigations into the alleged crime.

UT Police Chief David Carter explained that since “UTPD is in effect a state policing agency. There needs to be a firewall between criminal investigations and administrative investigations.” But for that to happen, a student needs to come forward and report a crime, and that is not common.

According to UT’s latest Annual Security Report there were 23 cases of reported forcible sex offenses on campus from 2010 to 2012. These numbers are really low when compared to national statistics.

“How do you make sense of these numbers?” Menendez asked UT administrators. “I believe that what we’re seeing is the tip of the iceberg and sometimes it takes a while for culture change to happen,” explained Bost.

Another explanation for the low report numbers is the judicial process. “The criminal justice process is a long and arduous process, so it burdens victims to report… if we don’t have a process where victims can report we will never get to the front end of what is really happening around campus sexual assault,” said Busch-Armendariz.

The University’s Sexual Misconduct Policy defines consent as, “assent in face, whether express or apparent, by all of the involved parties to engage in the same sexual activity at the same time. [It] can be revoked at any time and for any reason.” But creating a culture of consent on campus goes beyond a policy statement. For Noel the process of changing the culture should start at a younger age. “A lot of our belief systems are embedded in culture. We have to back it up– our prevention, our ideas of gender roles, what is right in terms of relationships between men and women really, need to start so much earlier, even in elementary school.”

In the case of UT, opinion leaders have begun to shift the culture. UT Football Head Coach Charlie Strong has been at the school for less than a year but has already made it very clear what he will and will not tolerate from his players. Coach Strong has a set of five core values: honesty, treating women with respect, no drugs, no weapons and no stealing. Since his arrival at Austin he has already suspended nine players, including the two accused of the alleged sexual assault.

This past weekend NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell traveled to Austin to meet with Coach Strong. While specifics of the meeting were not revealed, Coach Strong told the press, “we have to do a better job in college of just preparing young men and doing a better job with their character.”

Many of the players have supported Coach Strong’s policies. A senior cornerback told Texas Sport the core values, “are things that you grew up with your whole life, so it should be something that is instilled in every man, every person. I think guys should pay attention to that because Coach Strong is obviously doing the right things here.”

True success lies on ending sexual assault on campus and the answer is not always easy but the University of Texas at Austin seems to be embracing the challenge. Noel Busch-Armendariz described this embrace by explaining that the school does not one to box themselves, “ into believing there is any one panacea to ending sexual assault. This happens on a continuum. There is no one typology of offender, there is not one kind of victim.”

Alicia Menendez will continue to cover this topic. She will be travelling to different colleges across the country during this school-year.

Note: If you know of a school that has a sexual misconduct policy that you think is working or wish was different, let us know using #AMtonight or tweeting @aliciamenendez

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