Sexual assault victims navigate grueling path bringing assailants to justice
Published: Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 23:07
A critical issue in any rape case is determining whether the sexual act was consensual or a personal violation. Texas State Law affirms that a person is not capable of consenting if they are physically or mentally incapacitated due to the consumption of alcohol or drugs. Sexual intercourse with an individual who cannot rightfully give consent meets the definition of second degree rape in Texas.
After the trial, a public hearing is held to sentence the defendant. Less than 3 percent of rapists are convicted and spend one day in prison.
“I know that my case will probably never make it to trial because of lack of evidence,” Stephanie said. “I knew this going in, but I wanted [Ryan] to have a report on file so that if he does it again and the woman is brave enough to tell the police, then my report will be evidence to back her case up.”
The University’s response
Texas A&M offers a variety of services to students who are victims of sexual assault. The Division of Student Affairs and Student Assistant Services can accommodate the survivor by limiting unwanted contact with the accused assailant. Services include reassigning on-campus housing and transferring the survivor out of classes shared by the alleged attacker. The survivor might also choose to file a report with Student Conduct Services, the judicial arm of student affairs. This process does not operate under the same procedures as the court.
“[Student Conduct Services] exclusively looks at whether a University rule was broken,” said Kristen Harrell, associate director of the Offices of the Dean of Student Life. “We are not determining if a law was broken.”
Unlike criminal proceedings, which require testimony and evidence showing the defendant to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the University judicial process requires a preponderance of evidence, a less severe test based on the more convincing of the two arguments. Victims can choose the level of participation in the proceedings, from simply submitting a statement to being an active witness. Another difference in this process is that the victim reserves the right to have any past behavioral history omitted from discussion.
“We are very focused on the incident itself,” Harrell said. “Previous behavior is not always indicative of a single event.”
If the defendant is found guilty of sexual assault by the student conduct board, the student could face suspension or expulsion from the University. Texas A&M retains conduct files up to five years after the student graduates. In the event of an expulsion, however, the University holds the file permanently.
Members of the Corps of Cadets are subject to a separate judicial process. Disciplinary sanctions and conduct proceedings are handled internally and reviewed by the Office of the Commandant, not following the steps taken by students who are not cadets.
In 2006, a Texas A&M student was charged with sexually assaulting multiple female students between 2003 and 2006. An independent investigation conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity in 2010 concluded that the University was “slow to realize” the possibility of a serial rapist on campus. In recent years, administrators have taken steps to prevent a similar incident from occurring.
“One of the ways we are proactive is that we maintain constant communication between different units of student affairs, University Police Department and other parts of the University,” said Cynthia Hernandez, assistant vice president for student affairs.
Hernandez said the University’s response is correlated to the amount of reports filed by sexual assault victims.
“When we have more information, it’s easier to see how the pieces fit together,” Hernandez said. “With less information, it’s hard to see the big picture.”
Amid legal proceedings that often seem confusing and, at times, discouraging, some survivors found that reporting was a step toward recovering control of their lives.
“When [Ryan] assaulted me, he took something from me without my permission,” Stephanie said. “I couldn’t take that part back from him unless I made the report and let him know that he doesn’t have it anymore.”