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Monday July 24th, 2017 4:29PM

Baylor scandal inspires raft of Texas campus assault bills

By The Associated Press
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas lawmakers are pushing for tougher sexual assault reporting requirements on college campuses in response to the ongoing investigations into Baylor University's handling of sexual assault allegations involving its football program.

The Legislature convenes every other year and is in session for the first time since the Baylor scandal blew up and led to the firing last year of its successful football coach, Art Briles, and the resignation of its president, Ken Starr.

The nation's largest Baptist university is facing federal lawsuits from more than a dozen women who contend that school officials ignored or suppressed their sexual assault claims and fostered a culture of rape within the football program.

Lawmakers have reacted by proposing bills that would require school employees and student leaders to immediately relay reports of assaults to the school's investigations office or face possible criminal charges or expulsion, bar schools from using student conduct code violations to intimidate victims and witnesses, and make it easier to report assaults anonymously and online.

"It's time we changed the culture on college campuses," said state Sen. Joan Huffman a former prosecutor and judge from Houston. "Texas must lead the way on this issue."

Last month, the University of Texas released the results of a student survey that found that nearly 15 percent of female undergraduates at the 50,000-student campus said they had been raped. Twenty-eight percent said they had been subjected to unwanted sexual touching.

But it's the ongoing scandal at Baylor, including the accusations of a cover-up, that initially pushed lawmakers to act.

"We have cultural problem on a lot of campuses, but there's no question watching what was coming out of Baylor highlighted this for me," said state Sen. Kirk Watson, a Baylor graduate who maintains deep ties to the school.

"I love Baylor University, a lot. But I have been extra disappointed and very sad about all that has gone on, and frankly, in the efforts that Baylor has made, or not made, to restore confidence," he said.

Lawmakers and prominent donors have accused Baylor leaders of being too secretive in how the school conducted an internal investigation into the sexual assault reports and how it selectively released the investigation's findings.

Baylor initially released a 13-page "Finding of Facts" summary that found "institutional failure at every level," but it didn't include details of this failure. Months later, Baylor officials acknowledged that 17 women had reported being sexually assaulted by 19 football players.

In one of the lawsuits against the school, a woman who alleges that she was raped by two football players in 2013 says she knows of more than 50 sexual assaults by 31 players over a four-year period. The school and the law firm that conducted the internal review, Pepper Hamilton, are fighting subpoenas seeking the firm's investigation records.

As a private school, most of Baylor's records and its top-level meetings are exempt from the state's public information laws. State Sen. Kel Seliger, who chairs the Senate's Higher Education Committee, has proposed making private schools that receive at least $5 million from a state tuition program for poor students subject to the state's open records and meetings laws.

That would include Baylor and would force its board of trustees to hold public meetings. The board recently agreed to publish agendas and minutes and hold media briefings, but the meetings remain private.

Baylor's interim president, David Garland, appeared before Seliger's committee last week and found himself fighting off suggestions that the school has tried to bury rape allegations.

"We were not trying to cover up what happened at Baylor," Garland said.

Seliger wasn't having it.

"I don't buy that for a minute. I think that is exactly what was going on," he responded.

Garland said Baylor has taken steps to improve campus assault reporting and response, but lawmakers pressed him on why Baylor has allowed some top administrators to stay on the job.

The internal investigation found that among the widespread problems in how Baylor responded to reported assaults was that for years, the school didn't have a federal Title IX investigator whose job would be to investigate such claims. It also found that the school's judicial affairs office failed to take action in some cases, that victims and witnesses were silenced by the threat of conduct code violations for alcohol use and sexual conduct, and that board members may have been aware what was happening.

"You can't sit up here and tell me, a seasoned attorney, there was not some sort of criminal conspiracy," said state Sen. Royce West, a Dallas criminal defense lawyer.

The U.S. Department of Education's civil rights office launched its own investigating of Baylor after a former school official who was responsible for investigating assault claims filed a complaint against the school.

And the Texas Rangers, the state's elite criminal investigations unit, said last month that it had opened a preliminary inquiry into how Baylor handled assault cases. It didn't say if it was investigating specific assault allegations, though.

Since 2014, two former Baylor football players have been convicted of sexual assault and three others have been charged. Last month, the state's Court of Criminal Appeals overturned one of those convictions and ordered a new trial for the former player after finding that some text messages between him and the alleged victim were improperly excluded from trial.

___

Follow Jim Vertuno at https://twitter.com/Jim Vertuno

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