AUSTIN — Texas passed some of the most comprehensive legislation confronting college sexual misconduct and hazing in 2019, but legislators and advocates acknowledged at a Tuesday state panel that the new laws don’t provide a perfect solution.
Some lawmakers raised questions about the impact of Texas’ new measures against sexual misconduct, and advocates said a new law targeting hazing on college campuses falls short of holding those responsible accountable.
Senate Bill 212, an unprecedented law in the country, made it a misdemeanor and fireable offense for college employees to not report allegations of sexual misconduct, assault, stalking and dating violence. The law includes some exemptions for employees whose jobs require confidentiality, during public awareness events, and for students.
But Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, raised concerns during the House Higher Education Committee’s meeting that SB 212’s mandatory reporting requirements could discourage students who may not want to pursue an investigation from talking to a trusted employee.
“I think we did not carefully think through a way for the victim to have the maximum amount of choice, the maximum amount of support,” said Schaefer, who voted against the bill during the legislative session.
Higher education officials tasked with developing guidance on the law for universities said they have been teaching employees to make disclaimers about their duty to report through “gentle interruptions” if someone comes to them with an allegation.
“We don’t want it to be that we are discouraging someone from reporting especially when they are in some way, articulating potential needs that they might have,” said Krista Anderson, the UT System’s systemwide Title IX coordinator.
The new law gives university Title IX offices, which investigate and address reports, the opportunity to promptly reach out to victims and survivors and gather as much information as they want to offer, Anderson said.
But some religious institutions are also concerned about the law’s limited confidentiality, said Rachel Rolf, general counsel for Trinity University, who spoke on behalf of independent schools.
“Our religious institutions, particularly our Catholic institutions, have expressed concern about how this impacts the sacrament of confession on their campuses and obligations that priests have under their religious rules to keep the information strictly confidential,” she said.
Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, admitted the new measures are not all perfect but said they are necessary to address pressing concerns about college sexual misconduct.
“It’s not going to be perfect,” Howard said. “But the thing is that we couldn’t not move forward because everything is not totally fixed.”
Lawmakers also sought to crack down on hazing by passing Senate Bill 38, which added coerced drinking and use of drugs to the definition of hazing and requires schools to post information online when a hazing incident occurs.
The law came after a student at the University of Texas at Arlington nearly died from alcohol poisoning and after the deaths of at least three Texas college students since 2017.
Some anti-hazing advocates on Tuesday said the law failed to hold students accountable.
“There’s no personal accountability, and there is no consequence,” said Robin French, board president of the Austin-based nonprofit Parents and Alumni for Student Safety. “Until there is personal accountability … nothing’s going to change.”
Universities can also face pressure from alumni to not work with local authorities and prosecute hazing incidents in fraternities and sororities, French said.
“I think the change is gonna have to come from the Legislature requesting and bills that require the investigation and prosecution of this danger,” he said.
Jay Maguire, founder of Parents and Alumni for Student Safety, said universities are often reluctant to share information about hazing incidents because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
“I think this is a misguided read of FERPA, which is intended to protect student privacy,” he said. “It’s actually being used to shield perpetrators.”
But Margarita Arellano, the dean of students at Texas State University, said she has never been influenced by outside pressures. She said just because involved students’ names are not publicized, “that doesn’t mean they’re not being penalized.”
“Everybody is hurt in hazing, and it’s very complicated,” she said.
The University of Texas at Austin has begun working with a nonprofit to prepare incoming students from Houston with resources to combat hazing while in college, Maguire said. Arellano said Texas State University has focused on teaching students who may witness hazing how to intervene.
Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, urged advocates to continue working with universities to fight these systemic issues.
“I think with the passage of this bill I think the Legislature’s intent was pretty clear that hazing is unacceptable,” he said. “We want consequences when someone does something that endangers a student, or anyone.”