College campuses are not immune to crime, but how a university reacts when it happens, the steps taken to prevent it and how student-victims are protected reflect the integrity of the institution as a whole.
Something is very wrong when well-regarded universities consciously sacrifice the safety of its students for continued success on the playing field. Not only is the priority wrong, the school’s education mission is defeated.
Some Texas universities expend more energy and resources defending their institution’s reputation than looking after sexual-assault victims, only to see image-wrecking scandals expose top administrators found wanting, followed by costly lawsuits.
What can be done?
First off, student-athletes must be held accountable, just like any other student; They can no longer be above the law.
It’s not just that resources are often unavailable to the victims. It’s the mixed messages sent by the athletic departments through their inaction, coupled with institutional support for varsity squads, that diminish any effective demonstration of caring for those brutally abused.
Student-athletes suffer increased scrutiny, which may suggest they are more prone to such misbehavior. That certainly may not be the case, but anytime such allegations are proven, if the university fails to deal with the situation effectively, the perception of privileged untouchability is fostered.
As ex-Baylor University football coach Art Briles has learned all too well, winning no longer is enough. A coach’s responsibility goes beyond the playing field. Coaches and athletic directors must exploit their players’ group mentality as a tool to teach respectful conduct between the sexes. Then, hopefully, a ripple effect is triggered when these student-athletes stand as examples of their school’s values they so prominently represent.
At its core, a cultural shift is required. Ironically, it begins with education.
There has been a successful approach in Canada, starting with anti-violence advocates in Edmonton, which then spread to many cities. In 2010, the “Don’t Be That Guy” campaign in Vancouver was credited with contributing to a greater than 10 percent drop in sexual assaults.
One of its posters shows a woman passed out on a couch. “Just because she isn’t saying ‘no’ doesn’t mean she is saying ‘yes,’” the poster says. “Sex without consent = sexual assault. Don’t Be That Guy.”
Schools can use freshman orientation programs and encourage social media, campus ministries, student-run radio programs and newspapers to make sexual aggression socially abhorrent.
Another step toward improvement would be transparency by making public every month or semester the number of dismissals and other disciplinary action because of proven assault cases.
And why not make repairing the wrongs a university goal? Aside from the university’s president or chancellor personally reaching out to the victim (instead of crisis PR advisers and image consultants), the school should make assurances that the victim will be emotionally and financially supported through graduation — even if there’s the possibility of a lawsuit. Victims also should be assigned a faculty mentor, confidential counseling and extra time to meet educational goals. In short, do the right thing. At least it would be a start.
Scot Courtney of San Marcos has worked with students as a board-certified criminal defense attorney and as a university rugby coach. He is the author of the upcoming book, “Legal Street Smarts (Texas Edition): How to Graduate with a Clean Record, Avoid Evictions, Arrests and Worse.” The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the university where he coaches.