Austin Senator files legislation with aim to protect victims of sexual assault on campus


Former Austin mayor and State Rep. Kirk Watson speaks at a Texas Tribune on Jan. 31.
Photo Credit: Joshua Guerra | Daily Texan Staff

Update (1:12 p.m.): The Senate passed SB 970 requiring an accessible sexual assault policy for both public and private universities by a 30-1 vote Tuesday afternoon. While the bill formerly required an "affirmative consent" standard, the phrase is no longer included in the bill.

The bill will join Watson's other two Senate-approved sexual assault bills in the House. 

Update (9:45 p.m.): The Senate passed two of Sen. Kirk Watson's bills aimed at helping sexual assault victims Monday evening. 

Senate Bill 968, which provides students and employees with an electronic reporting option for assaults and SB 969, which grants victims amnesty for student code violations when reporting an assault, both passed.

Both bills will head to the House of Representatives next and await assignments to a House committee for further deliberation. 

Original post: At UT Austin, nearly one in five female undergraduates reported being the victim of sexual assault by force or incapacitation and 5 percent of male undergraduates reported a similar experience, according to a UT Campus Assault Survey.

Texas Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, filed five bills Tuesday addressing sexual assault at Texas institutions of higher education by clearly defining what constitutes as consent and by protecting students who are the victims or witnesses of such occurrences.

Citing recent scandals at Baylor University and at Stanford, Watson said on his website that his legislation is needed to address weaknesses in handling sexual assault cases at private and public institutions of higher education.

“Sexual assault is a crime that happens to an alarming number of people and yet very few victims ever report this crime to law enforcement,” Watson said in a statement. “These bills seek to encourage victims of sexual assault to report without fear of campus or law enforcement authorities penalizing them for minor alcohol-related offenses or student conduct code violations that may have occurred ancillary to the incident.”

Senate Bill 967 would change the definition of consent in the current Texas Penal Code. Under the bill, consent isn’t present if the victim is unaware the situation is occurring or if consent is knowingly withdrawn. The bill also removes as a defense the claim that the other person gave consent if a “reasonable person” would think otherwise.

SB 970 would require institutions of higher education to have an affirmative consent standard. Watson said this definition of consent is important in order to hold perpetrators of sexual assault accountable.

“‘No’ means no,” Watson said in a statement. “But the absence of ‘yes’ should also mean no.” The remaining three bills address reporting sexual assaults on campus.

SB 966 would provide alcohol amnesty for possession and consumption of alcohol by a minor for students who report being a victim or witness of sexual assault to a healthcare provider, police officer, or TItle IX office.

This amnesty would extend to protecting students who violate student conduct code under SB 969.

Additionally, SB 968 would require universities to provide an anonymous online reporting system for violations such as sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking.

Sofie Karasek, director of education and co-founder of End Rape on Campus, said in a statement on Watson’s website that the legislation would make it easier for students to come forward and participate in investigations.

“For years, victims of sexual assault have been discouraged from reporting, fearing that their cases wouldn’t be taken seriously, their assailants wouldn’t be punished, or that they themselves could be penalized in cases involving alcohol or drugs,” Karasek said in a statement.

Austin Smith, government and economics sophomore, said he hopes the legislation sets a higher statewide standard for dealing with interpersonal violence. Smith said student initiatives such as Voices Against Violence, which he is a part of, are already working to support survivors and define consent and healthy relationships.

“I really hope that other campuses will take this legislation as an opportunity to develop student-led initiatives like the many we have on campus,” Smith said in an email.