If a student’s bike is stolen on campus, they can choose to report the incident to the police, the university or both.
If a student is sexually assaulted on campus, they can choose to report the incident to the police, the university or both.
A bill proposed in the nation’s Senate would give survivors of campus sexual assault fewer options than victims of bike theft.
The innocuous-sounding Safe Campus Act would, if enacted, restrict the actions that a university can take on behalf of a sexual assault survivor until they agree to first take their case to law enforcement. Furthermore, this initial report must happen within 48 hours of the event, an absurdly short amount of time for a traumatized person to compose themselves, clarify what actually happened and find out how and where to report it.
Universities provide support without survivors ever having to engage in the judicial process. Mental health centers like the one at UT offer confidential counseling, advocacy and advice on what to do when and if survivors report. The University can also make academic accommodations, such as giving survivors time off of school to recover or helping them get out of classes they share with an alleged assailant.
Police departments aren’t involved in these day-to-day interactions. Instead, they often focus on the legal aspects of a case. Universities, however, have an entire system under the Title IX amendment that promotes sexual equality and safety. While both entities are important, universities can do more to improve the lives of survivors of sexual assault, whether the students choose to press charges or not.
Survivors are already less likely to report to police for a variety of reasons. Universities, while they still have bureaucratic obstacles, have nonetheless seen a rise in reports — not because there is more crime, but because more students are comfortable coming forward for help from an institution so close to them. Campuses have the resources and commitment to focus on the single crime of sexual assault, but police departments don’t have the same liberty. Enacting the Safe Campus Act would be a huge step backwards.
Women’s Resource Agency director Grace Gilker said university support is an important reason survivors come forward with their stories.
“Reporting any crime, especially reporting sexual assault, regardless of whether you go to the police, is a very, very long, difficult process,” Gilker said. “That access to counseling and campus support is a reason to go forward.”
University offices are not allowed to postulate on the effects of the proposed legislation on UT’s services, but with the level of the Safe Campus Act’s restriction on universities, one can imagine a system where even basic counseling services could be dependent on a survivor filing a police report. Fewer resources means fewer cases that receive a fair hearing.
“I don’t think it’s just one department’s or one person’s responsibility to create a safe environment,” Title IX coordinator Latoya Hill said. “We are all a part of this system.”
With the help of universities, survivors can do things to help themselves that have nothing to do with their legal case or their alleged assailant. Only when survivors feel empowered, not limited, in their options can we say that we have truly safe campuses.
Hallas is a Plan II and human development freshman from Houston. You can follow her on Twitter @LauraHallas.