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Baylor’s Sexual Assault Problems Could Go Way Beyond Its Football Program

AP
AP

Two months ago, the law firm commissioned by Baylor to look into the university’s sexual assault scandal released its report on the matter. The results were damning: Pepper Hamilton’s findings turned up repeated instances of football coaches actively hindering investigations into players accused of sexual assault, often with the explicit help of university administrators or the Waco, Texas, police department.

Some of the vaguer items from the Pepper report are now being drawn out in horrifying detail, painting a picture of a campus with leaders who held their students’ safety and attempts to seek justice in shocking disregard. The 13-page inquiry concluded that “perceived judgmental responses by administrators based on a complainant’s alcohol or other drug use or prior consensual sexual activity also discouraged reporting or continued participation in the process.” Chad Dunn, a Houston lawyer who represents six women now suing Baylor, told the Associated Press just what those “judgmental responses” may have entailed.

“A number of victims were told that if they made a report of rape, their parents would be informed of the details of where they were and what they were doing,” Dunn told AP over the weekend. Dunn’s clients also allege that university officials repeatedly brought up the school’s drug and alcohol policy — violation of which is grounds for expulsion — in response to allegations of sexual violence, in effect threatening victims into silence.

Baylor has maintained that the events that unfolded between 2009 and 2016 — namely, the suppression of numerous reports of rape and sexual assault committed by members of the football team — were the result of a culture created by specific personnel. To that end, following the release of Pepper Hamilton’s report in May, the university suspended head coach Art Briles with the intent to fire him, placed athletic director Ian McCaw on probation, and demoted university president Ken Starr. (Public outcry over Starr’s lateral move prompted his resignation a week later.)

The latest allegations, however, suggest that the problems at Baylor could be even worse than they initially seemed. Baylor, the nation’s largest Baptist university with an enrollment of 16,787 in 2015, has a notoriously strict student code of conduct: Dancing was banned at the school until 1996; “fornication” and “homosexual acts” were only removed from the list of verboten deeds last year. “Personal misconduct either on or off the campus by anyone connected with Baylor,” the guidelines read, “detracts from the Christian witness Baylor strives to present to the world and hinders full accomplishment of the mission of the University.” Dunn and his clients have highlighted how conflicting elements of the code may have been deployed to stifle women on campus:

In May, we saw just how seriously Baylor took the news of its serial failure to protect its students: By suspending Briles, and only Briles, Baylor was suggesting that he was the sole source of the problem; that it was his presence on campus — and his alone — that facilitated an environment in which these crimes could occur. Even then, Baylor was reluctant to punish him: After hemming and hawing over whether it was really necessary to get rid of the man responsible for building the Bears into a football powerhouse, Briles’s suspension was never formalized as a firing. This leaves open the possibility that he could return, something many of the school’s boosters are reportedly agitating for.

Baylor’s original interpretation of what went wrong now feels woefully shortsighted: The problems that allowed some football players to commit sexual violence with impunity may have extended far beyond the head coach. The Pepper report found that coaches and staff members together “reinforced an overall perception that football was above the rules.” The latest allegations have reinforced a different perception: that many students — specifically female ones who had been victimized by their classmates — were unworthy of even the most basic protections. It’s not just that these students were placed in danger, as when the team recruited Sam Ukwuachu, who had previously been dismissed from Boise State and was later convicted of a felony sexual assault; nor is it even that they were ignored when that danger was realized. It’s that, according to this lawsuit, after these women had been assaulted, they were then actively terrorized by the administrators who were meant to protect them. And you can bet that many of those officials still have their jobs today.

Baylor has said it is taking the recommendations of the Pepper Hamilton report as mandates; here, the law firm advised lowering the barriers to reporting assaults on campus. This would certainly represent a crucial step forward, but hardly a thorough one. Baylor may have had such a horrifyingly misguided culture that it not only valued the success of a football team over the well-being of its students; it also might have been more concerned with preventing underage drinking and consensual premarital sex than eliminating campus rape.