SB 576: The Quick Fix That Will Silence Survivors of Sexual Assault

Texas students Hailey Pulman and Katherine Protil share how a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to bring sexual assault cases to light will actually drive survivors further into the shadows.

Image courtesy of Deeds Not Words’ allied organization End Rape on Campus

Final words of advice for your college ready son may be something along the lines of “Don’t forget to study!” but for us and most of our female friends, our mothers refused to leave before we promised we wouldn’t put our drinks down at frat parties or walk home alone at night. Sadly, it wasn’t bad advice. Just between the two of us, we know of over a dozen friends who have been sexually assaulted on their college campuses. As we sit in graduate school at UT Austin, where a recent report showed 15% of female undergraduates have been raped, we are eager to support bills that support survivors and end this epidemic.

At first glance, Senator Huffman’s bill SB 576 looks like a step in the right direction. Holding universities accountable for cover ups? We’re all for it. Senator Huffman is disgusted by this problem and so are we. But even the most well-intentioned lawmakers passionate about fighting campus sexual assault occasionally make mistakes. SB 576 will end up further traumatizing survivors by taking away their autonomy; it may ultimately harm survivors rather than helping them heal.

The centerpiece of SB 576 is its mandatory reporting requirement — which would require all university employees (except those with privacy privileges like doctors and psychiatrists) and all student organization officers to report all cases of sexual assault they hear about. Even cases of assault told in confidence must be disclosed, or the staff member or student can be punished. In the bill, failure to report is punished by a minimum one year suspension for students and criminal charges and termination for employees.

On its face, mandatory reporting can seem like a good idea: it’s demanding of universities and tough on perpetrators. But it can also be tough on survivors. Mandatory reporting turns potential allies — professors, friendly staff members, and even (in the case of SB 576) fellow students — into deputies of the campus Title IX office. And that can have a silencing effect on students who aren’t sure they want the university to get involved. Instead of expanding survivors’ options in the aftermath of sexual assault, mandatory reporting leaves just two paths forward: officially notify the university of the assault or do your best to stay silent.

Mandatory reporting takes even more control away from survivors of sexual assault after one of the most disempowering experiences imaginable.

Survivors of sexual assault overwhelmingly reject mandatory reporting. A survey from the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence found that almost 90% of survivors believed they should retain the choice whether and to whom to report and 79% of survivors believe mandatory reporting would actually decrease reporting of sexual assaults. While it isn’t always clear to people who don’t have a personal connection to sexual assault, survivors have sent a strong message that they do not want to be forced into the reporting system. According to The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 2.5% of reported rapes end with the rapist being convicted. Reliving a trauma for months or years on end might not be worth a 2.5% chance of success for all survivors. And they should be allowed to make that decision for themselves.

Senator Huffman’s speeches make it clear that HB 576 was written with the best of intentions. But the solution to campus sexual assault is not a quick fix that burdens victims. There is a reason no other state has enforced mandatory reporting of campus sexual assaults. The crop of anti-sexual assault bills this legislative session has been encouraging, but changing the culture of universities won’t happen overnight. Senator Huffman clearly wants to send a strong message: Texas will not tolerate these crimes any longer. But we have to make sure another important message is being sent: Survivors are trusted to heal as they see fit. Texas will not further disempower them.

Katherine Protil is a first year candidate for her Master of Public Affairs at the Lyndon B. Johnson School from Silver Spring, Maryland. Hailey Pulman is a dual degree candidate for a JD and Master of Public Affairs also at Lyndon B. Johnson School from San Antonio, Texas.

For more information on sexual assault throughout the United States and what you can do to help, subscribe to our Deeds Digest newsletter. If you live in Texas and would like to get more involved, and join our Texas Advocacy Facebook group and sign up for email updates including opportunities to testify.

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