The Senate Higher Education Committee approved a bill Wednesday that updates the state's policy for how colleges and universities are required to handle campus sexual violence.
Senate Bill 585, introduced by Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, would require all public and private colleges and universities in the state to adopt policies that define the behaviors that are prohibited, lay out the punishments for those behaviors and explain the protocol for reporting and responding to sexual assault, sexual harassment, dating violence and stalking.
The bill would also require colleges and universities to take reasonable steps to protect both the victim and the accused from retaliation. In cases in which both are enrolled in a course together, the bill would allow either of them to drop the course without academic penalty.
During Wednesday's meeting, Watson told the committee that sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence are a major and under-reported problem on college campuses nationwide.
"Members, I want to be very clear that this is not a problem we can ignore or that our institutions of higher education can ignore," Watson said.
A study conducted between 2015 and 2017 by the University of Texas at Austin's Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault found that 10% of female undergraduates and 4% of male undergraduates across the University of Texas system reported being raped. Those totals include 4% of students at the University of Texas at Dallas and 6% of students at the University of Texas at Arlington who reported having been raped since their enrollment.
Rebecca Bernhardt, policy coordinator for the nonprofit Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, praised the bill, saying it creates a framework for universities to respond to sexual violence on their campuses and lays out an equitable process that ensures that both the victim and the accused are treated fairly.
"This is a bill that will make Texas campuses safer and healthier places to go to school," she said.
During Wednesday's meeting, Meghan Romere, a first-year student at the University of Texas School of Law, told the committee about how her case was mismanaged after she was sexually assaulted as an undergraduate at Texas A&M. Romere's case gained national attention last year after she shared her story on Twitter and began publicly advocating for change at the university.
After her case was mishandled, Romere contacted the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and was told the problem would be dealt with, but after more than a year of negotiations, Romere learned that the department had declared her complaint resolved with little to show for it.
The problem, Romere said, is that the department has little authority to tell colleges and universities how they must handle campus sexual violence. The bill the committee discussed Wednesday gives the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board the authority to take action against colleges and universities that don't comply with the bill. For public colleges and universities, the board may report the school's noncompliance to the Texas Legislature, which may then consider whether to dock the school's state aid. The board may issue a fine against private universities that are out of compliance.
"Senate Bill 585 is more than just a badly needed solution to a problem plaguing our institutions," Romere said. "It's a message to the rest of the world that Texans believe in the inviolability of our rights, and that our Legislature is dedicated to protecting them."
After the committee approved the bill, Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat and the committee's vice chairman, reminded Romere and other advocates that their work on the bill wouldn't be done until Gov. Greg Abbott signs it.
"It's not over. You've got to continue to push and push and push," West said. "There are some other steps that you're going to need to take. We'll be right there with you."
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