After facing a wave of criticism over the alleged mishandling of sexual assault cases for at least the last five years, Texas A&M University is promising to fix the longstanding problem that frustrated students and parents, tarnished the university’s reputation and ignited a debate over the campus’ tolerance for alleged abusers.
The university issued a new statement last Monday regarding a meeting to discuss policies and new steps that are supposed to address the culture that remained deaf to sexual misconduct victims.
Around 12 female students came forward earlier this year, claiming that they experienced sexual assault on the campus or with another student. When they reported it to Texas A&M University (TAMU), they experienced a series of traumatic events over again as they recounted their stories only to have the university defend their alleged perpetrators. Ten alleged victims have come forward to share their stories, sparking a social media and student backlash. The 68,000-student state university originally said in June that it followed protocol for each case of assault, but made an announcement on July 2 that they would be reviewing the cases.
In the press statement released to students and the public, Texas A&M outlined steps for the future. The university is creating an internal review committee made up of self-selected students, staff, and counselors to determine where to meet grievances. The board members are reviewing university rules, procedures, and student punishment processes. Finally, the Provost is overseeing an external firm Husch Blackwell’s investigation and assessment into Texas A&M University as it interviews faculty and students on campus.
They are not commenting on any individual cases thus far but met with a student-led group to discuss the issues. Student group the 12thWoman was formed by survivors of sexual assault at Texas A&M University to solidify as a group and address grievances against the university’s alleged sexual assault leniencies. After their meeting with the Provost, Chancellor and others, 12thWoman group leader Abbie Hillis said they are “cautiously hopeful.”
Hillis, herself raped in 2010 and a core leader of the #MeTooTAMU movement outlined that the university did not fully address its missteps in handling assault. She told The Globe Post, “Campus alerts were never sent out…for several of our assaults. No one has addressed that.” The alerts are a campus-wide alert common to most universities sent to student emails, and sexual assault is an alert to be sent out to students after being reported to campus. Hillis expressed frustration at the university’s lack of clear guidelines. “So far all we’ve had are words. We hope we can work together to have solid options and have accurate advocacy for these survivors.”
The university came under fire as #MeTooTAMU stories of students coming forward took off on social media earlier in 2018. In particular, two accusers were outraged that TAMU allowed their alleged perpetrators to return to the swim team and football team after a brief review of their cases.
Texas A&M is the latest in a string of universities being accused of having lax policies and defense of rape in light of Title IX. Title IX is the Department of Education regulation that says students cannot be discriminated against, harassed or hurt in any education program receiving federal assistance. This includes sexual assault. Associate professor of sociology at Occidental College and a researcher of campus sex culture Lisa Wade told The Globe Post that because of Title IX, all parties are at risk when reporting a sexual assault. “Either way, often when a case is resolved, someone’s going to get sued.”
Texas A&M has several similar cases with different outcomes, which sparked the media firestorm and student outrage. Texas A&M did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The cases of sexual assault at Texas A&M are all part of the larger #MeToo conversation happening at universities across the country. Universities are all sanctioned under Title IX, but the government policy allows each university to set their own guidelines and systems for handling a case of sexual assault with their students.
Often, these policies are applied on a case-by-case basis and force the alleged victim to recount their story of assault repeatedly. When cases are resolved, it is usually in front of regents and other officials lacking expertise on how to handle sexual assault. This leads to lawsuits. Wade said these lawsuits “…are very bad for PR. It’s incentive to fix things and move the movement forward. Any time a student can sue, they should sue.”
In the case of Texas A&M, a university with thousands of alumni working in public service, frustrated students are doing so. As a result of one investigation, one student was expelled by the university after an alleged victim brought forth a lawsuit against him. The lawsuit cost the survivor’s family $12,000.
Hillis believes the Aggie Code of Honor, a huge part of the university’s culture, should warrant that the TAMU expel students found guilty of sexual assault. “It’s easier to get expelled for cheating on a test than for committing sexual assault,” she said. In addition, she is also calling for TAMU to bar anyone found guilty of sexual assault from participating in the powerful Aggie alumni network.
The movement has also sparked a conversation about university culture in general and how it encourages sexual violence. Wade said the college is set up as a patriarchal institution, even today. “So (now) we are funneling people into a system that says they can play, as long as they do so on a male basis. Marginalized students confront a hostile environment and a system rife with sexism.”
Hillis has personally taken to speaking to her high school alma mater to tell her story, teach on consent and prepare students to understand how to navigate the university system. Other students have taken steps to provide safe places for students to recount their stories without fear of retaliation. The 12th Woman says it hopes everyone can find strength in numbers in their individual cases of harassment and assault.
Hillis hopes the university can lead the way in nationwide sexual assault policy reform. “As Aggies are trained to be leaders and to hold persons in power responsible, we can be the leading founder in a system that works.”