August 5, 2014

UT got it right on sexual assault

Football coach, president set an example for the rest of the country.

At the University of Texas at Austin, we’re seeing a model for how college administrations should handle sexual assault cases: by supporting survivors from the very beginning.

Head football coach Charlie Strong may be the best inoculation against a culture of rape on campus that we’ve seen in 40 years of providing services to the survivors of sexual assault.

Three of Strong’s five core principles relate directly to abuse or the actions that lead to it: Respect women, don’t use guns and avoid drugs.

Strong deserves credit for naming these behaviors and following through with immediate suspensions of Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander from the team (as well as several other players who couldn’t meet these expectations, which are, let’s be honest, not exactly a high bar to clear).

The suspensions send a powerful message across the multimillion-dollar Longhorn football universe: Respect for women is a prerequisite for playing football for the university.

This was followed by a public statement from UT-Austin President Bill Powers in which he backed up the coach and said the university “vigorously investigate[s] all allegations so we can take the appropriate action.”

The news this summer has been full of stories of colleges where a culture of suspicion, silence and intimidation was devastating for women who reported sexual assaults.

On too many campuses, victims don’t believe their allegations will be taken seriously, so they don’t report them at all.

Yet the repercussions of these strong statements from leadership are already being felt. The Houston Chronicle reported that the school has experienced “sharp growth” in allegations of sexual assault since the story broke.

That’s what happens when victims begin to trust in a system that treats their experiences as crimes rather than misunderstandings that are best swept under the rug.

According to Powers’ statement, every student on campus receives sexual assault prevention training.

The Austin American-Statesman reported that the first call to police in this case came from a bystander, who reported a “crying, barefoot and ‘disheveled’” woman in the dorm lobby.

That shows that some anonymous student took the time to recognize his or her responsibility to get help for a woman in distress.

An essential piece in creating a culture of accountability is to train bystanders to recognize their role in preventing assaults and supporting survivors.

Unfortunately, at schools in Texas and across the nation, the focus of a sexual assault investigation too often centers on what a victim was wearing, how much she had to drink, or whether she really did want to have sex and now just feels bad about it.

But with their recent words, and in working to ensure that students and staff are prepared to respond to sexual assault with sensitivity, respect and accountability — regardless of who the perpetrators are — Powers and Strong set an example for the rest of the country.

Let’s hope that what starts here changes the world.

Julia Spann is executive director of SafePlace in Austin. safeplace.org

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