By Brandon Sams
University student government representatives across the state are asking Texas lawmakers to change the way sexual assault is reported.
Students from Texas State University are among the public university representatives who joined state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, in sponsoring five bills that seek to re-examine the way sexual assault is reported and defined.
The two bills getting the most attention out of the bunch are Senate Bill 967 and 968.
The former aims to elaborate on the Texas Penal Code’s definition of “consent,” which is described as “assent in fact, whether express or apparent.” SB 967 would add three additional provisions to expand the breadth of “consent” to include it being absent when a potential actor knows a person is incapable of appraising the act, such as when intoxicated. The bill also removes the defense of an actor who believed a person to have given consent when a “reasonable” person would have known there was none.
SB 968 is less complicated and simply requires public institutions, such as universities, to provide an electronic option for reporting incidents of sexual assault, stalking and domestic abuse.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud to be a Bobcat than I am right now,” said education sophomore Leela Rao. “People don’t feel comfortable reporting sometimes, because (sexual assault) is such an intimate and personal crime…some officers across cold and force girls to relive the experience even when they aren’t ready.”
With the addition of electronic and anonymous reporting law enforcement officials hope to see an increase in reporting from victims and witnesses. The reporting system, according to reports, will also have options for submitting videos, text messages and photos as evidence.
Texas State Student Conduct Officer Kendra Wesson sees firsthand how the environment has changed in higher education. She said her job often involves trying to convince victims to take legal action.
“We deal with a lot of things, from alcohol to drugs, but the most impactful is definitely sexual assault and rape,” Wesson said. “The emotional baggage that comes with these crimes is so sad and palpable. It’s the worst part of my job.”
The bills were introduced after an internal report by the University of Texas at Austin found that 15 percent of female undergraduates reported being raped or sexually assaulted earlier this year. This information, compounded with recent sexual assault scandals at Baylor University, highlighted a need for transparency and more productive resources for survivors of sexual assault and violence.
Unfortunately for sexual assault advocacy groups, only three of the five bills sponsored by Sen. Watson made it to committee. Two, including SB 968, were approved almost unanimously, garnering only one dissenting vote from Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood.
The third bill, which would require private colleges to adopt the same policies on sexual assault that public universities adopted in 2015, is expected to be approved after being edited in the State Affairs Committee after backlash from Republican senators.
“The most important thing, I feel, is changing the culture on college campuses,” Texas State alumna Imani McGarrell said. “We can’t win them all: sometimes we have to compromise.”
The edited version of SB 970 stripped a provision requiring school code to stress “affirmative consent,” which specified that consent, once given, could be stripped at any moment and is unable to be given if a person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The bills, once officially approved by Governor Abbot, will go into effect on Sept. 1, the beginning of the next academic school year for universities across the state.
“I’m excited to see these laws implemented,” Wesson said. “I think they’ll be a force for good in the battle against sexual violence on campus, and lord knows we need this.”