The Road to Zero

The Road to Zero

Inside the university’s fight against sexual assault

Nancy Daley used to tape the stories to her office door. She began saving them in the late ’90s: short student essays from the courses she teaches on human sexuality, all anonymous personal accounts from UT students, all of them about sexual assault.

Most describe assaults by friends or boyfriends. One student, who had recently returned to UT, was raising a child conceived during a rape her freshman year.

“The rape of my brother caused pain throughout our family,” another student wrote. “It changed not one life but many.”

“My parents … asked me to tell everyone I had to go to Mexico for a funeral,” another essay read. “When I try to tell my friends, they play it off and claim that I had bad sex I don’t want to remember.”

“It sucks because I don’t know anyone who has been in my position,” wrote a gay male student.

Some found the essays offensive or triggering, so Daley, PhD ’01, an educational psychology professor, began to cover them with sheets of paper—a comment, she thought, on the silence surrounding the issue. Now she’s taken the essays down entirely. She keeps a small stack of them in a blank manila folder, about 50 in all, “but that’s nothing,” Daley says. “We hear from students every semester.”

When I ask about the number of rapes reported to UT last year—48, according to UT’s annual security report, from a student body of 51,000—Daley laughs, loudly and a little sadly.  Experts say sexual assaults are widely underreported. When I ask for her thoughts on the varying statistics measuring sexual assault rates at colleges—some studies say one in four women are sexually assaulted during college, others say one in five—Daley gets a bit impatient. She replies, “Let’s just say ‘a lot.’”


The stories Daley once taped to her door have become part of a heated national conversation surrounding sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct. Nowhere is that discussion more focused than at colleges and universities. In the spring of 2015, the Association of American Universities surveyed students at 27 universities on the subject. The survey found that among UT’s undergraduate population, 18.5 percent of women and 5 percent of men reported being victims of sexual assault or misconduct during their time on campus. These numbers are slightly lower than the survey’s national average of 23.1 percent of women and 5.4 percent of men.

“One sexual assault is too many,” UT president Greg Fenves said in a statement when the survey results were released. “It is essential that we foster a campus that does not tolerate sexual assaults while strongly encouraging victims to come forward.”

Though non-students report higher assault rates than students, public focus remains centered on the issue at colleges and universities, largely because sexual assault and harassment can bar students’ access to their education, causing them to withdraw or drop out. Preventing sexual assault during college is a way to prevent emotional—and sometimes physical—barriers between students and their ability to attend class, study, or otherwise participate in campus and academic life. At its heart, it’s about civil rights.

How, then, to protect those rights? How can universities address both stories like the ones Nancy Daley keeps in her manila folder and the survey numbers? How can they support student rape victims so they stay in school and flourish? And ultimately, how can they stop those assaults from happening in the first place? These are the questions that UT and other universities are grappling with.


“In many ways, it’s a new field, trying to solve a problem that’s millennia old,” says Erin Burrows, prevention and outreach coordinator for Voices Against Violence, a program that addresses sexual and interpersonal violence issues at UT. Then there’s UT itself, with its 51,000 students always in flux. Trying to tackle an old, huge problem at a huge school—that’s daunting.  But “schools and universities are centers of power,” notes Elizabeth Gerberich, a Voices Against Violence volunteer and UT senior. “People are so much more easily mobilized within them. The potential to educate people about these issues is enormous.”

Title IX and Campus Assault

When you hear about sexual assault at colleges, you’ll often hear of Title IX. Best known for ensuring gender equity in college sports, the 1972 civil rights law reaches beyond athletics, prohibiting sex discrimination at schools receiving federal funds. For students, Title IX offers options beyond lodging criminal or civil complaints against their assailants: Students can report the assault to their schools and expect to receive emergency supportive services, such as counseling or new housing. If the alleged assailant is another student, administrators may also investigate the incident under Title IX, and in some cases, discipline or expel the accused student. The reverse is true, too: Alleged assailants who maintain a sexual encounter was mutual may also turn to Title IX for protection.

It wasn’t always like this. In 2011, a letter from the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education reminded schools of their longstanding legal obligations under Title IX to protect students from sexual assault and harassment, leaving administrators across the country scrambling to revise their policies and revamp their services. “It was a landmark letter,” says Burrows. “People changed the way they thought about Title IX and campus safety because of it.” UT hired its first Title IX investigator in 2006; it now employs six.

In the spring of 2014, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault released the “Not Alone” report. With guidelines similar to the 2011 letter, the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education threatened stiffer consequences to schools for not complying, including a loss of federal funds. Since the report’s issuance, more than 100 universities have come under investigation for Title IX violations, including five in Texas. (UT-Austin was not one of them.) The Task Force called on schools to conduct yearly campus climate surveys to monitor sexual assault and harassment at their campuses and step up their efforts to prevent them from happening at all. “If we get this right,” the report reads, “today’s students will leave college knowing that sexual assault is simply unacceptable.”

Lawmakers have recently taken on the issue, in 2013 passing the Campus SaVE Act requiring schools to offer prevention and awareness programs and publish data about the sexual violence claims lodged by students. The Campus Accountability and Safety Act, proposed by a bipartisan coalition of senators in February 2015, would bolster training requirements for campus staff responding to assaults and standardize schools’ disciplinary proceedings for sexual misconduct charges. In fall 2015, House Republicans introduced two bills they said would protect the due-process rights of accused students. Supporters argue that municipal law enforcement is better equipped to handle allegations of assault than university student-conduct or Title IX offices; at presstime, two male former UT students had filed a lawsuit alleging that the university’s Title IX office unfairly expelled them without due process. Opponents of the bill, meanwhile, argue that forcing victims to turn to police discourages them from reporting their assaults. According to a 2015 study by UT social work professor Noël Busch- Armendariz, who also directs UT’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, in Texas only 9 percent of sexual assault victims said they had reported to law enforcement. The university’s Student Government passed a resolution in October unanimously opposing the bill.

With the increased attention, more students have begun to report sexual assaults to their schools and make use of their Title IX protections. A team of UT-Austin researchers is preparing a blueprint intended to improve campus police response to sexual assault cases by encouraging a “victim-centered, trauma-informed perspective.” The report also shows that the number of sexual assaults on campus reported to UT’s Title IX Coordinator increased tenfold in three years—from just two cases reported in the 2011-12 academic year to 23 cases reported in 2013-14.

sexual-assault-6“A lot of times students just want to move on and forget about it,” says Title IX coordinator LaToya Hill, BA ’99, PhD ’06. “What I would tell staff members and any student who doesn’t want to report is that statistics show that an individual who has committed assault or stalking or harassment is more likely to do it again.”

Reports of other abusive incidents, such as stalking, harassment, and relationship violence, are also on the rise. Last year, the number of sexual assault allegations more than doubled, Hill says. “What I am really trying to get the university to understand is that while sexual assault is the most egregious attack against an individual, we have seen a rise in stalking and sexual misconduct over the last two years, which can also have a traumatic impact on survivors,” Hill says. “It’s about much more than sexual assault.”

Consent is Golden

University programs across the country are also evolving. The work of challenging campus rape culture—and striving to end sexual assault entirely—has come with its share of failed experiments, Burrows says. Though the White House Task Force urged schools to use “evidence-based approaches” to prevent sexual violence, not much evidence exists for programs that work. The only two success stories the task force pointed to, for example, were geared toward middle school students.

Much of Voices Against Violence’s public awareness efforts have centered on promoting the idea of consent, “an enthusiastic, mutual agreement that can be revoked at any time for any reason,” according to the group’s website. “We’ve moved away from telling people how to keep themselves safe to telling them how to be safer people,” Burrows says. Gone are the rape whistles, stashed in a storage closet somewhere, replaced with “Consent is Golden” temporary tattoos in the shape of Texas. Walk past any campus kiosk or hallway bulletin board, and you’ll likely find a “UT Gets Consent” poster offering the program’s take on what consent is—and isn’t.  In the photographed posters, UT students hold up scrawled statements about consent—“Wasted means NO”;  “Wait means NO”; “Silence means NO”—followed by the message, “Yes Means Yes.”

It was this campaign that ultimately drew Linda Serna to Voices Against Violence. As a UT freshman, Serna, who identifies as genderqueer, says they were sexually assaulted at a fraternity party after receiving a drugged drink. It wasn’t the first traumatic event in Serna’s life—Serna, who passed through foster care but was later adopted, had already defied the odds by making National Honors Society, achieving perfect high school attendance, and earning admission to a school like UT. But with the assault, Serna says, “something in me gave.” It was spring 2007. Serna, who had rushed a sorority, stopped attending social events to avoid the man and his friends. Slowly, Serna’s memory and focus clouded, a change reflected in lower grades and poorer attendance. “Maybe I’m lazy,” Serna remembers thinking. “Maybe I’m not supposed to be here.” Serna, now 28, dropped out of UT after the assault and spent years working service and retail jobs before returning to school.

sexual-assault-4Just as crucial to Serna as the consent posters’ message were the students photographed in them: students in hijab, students in wheelchairs. Students in job-ready button-ups, students with nose piercings. Male, female, and trans students. Brown, black, and white students. Students Serna could relate to. “Queer people and people of color and all these other communities that I’m a part of kind of get pushed under the rug,” Serna says. “They’re experiencing these things too, but they’re not seen.”

On a bright October afternoon, Serna, now a paid student coordinator for Voices Against Violence, stands behind an impressively decorated booth on the West Mall and calls out to students on their way to class: “Free T-shirts! Talk about healthy relationships!” One of those students is junior Roxanne Meraji, who sits quietly pondering the questions provided at the Rally for Healthy Relationships—where T-shirts come in exchange for answering questions and using an Instagram tag. “How do you get consent?” one card asks. “Over dinner,” Meraji writes on a sticky note. “My mom always says you should have a good conversation with food.”

Meraji stopped by the booth when she overheard people talking about consent. Raised in a traditional Texas border town, she first saw the word “consent” printed on a pamphlet in her freshman dorm. The word troubled her, so she Googled it. She began to think of her high school boyfriend. “Had I fully consented, or did I just want to get him off my back?” In a freshman orientation skit, Meraji had watched their relationship play out before her eyes. “He kept bothering her and she didn’t want it, but he did it anyway,” says Meraji, who now identifies as a sexual assault survivor. “That was exactly what I went through.”

Standing By

It’s a rowdy, jam-packed weekly meeting for the Women’s Resource Agency, a student government group that kicked off the school year with two resolutions to address sexual assault at UT, the subject of tonight’s discussion. To start, a PowerPoint presentation moves from UT’s founding as a co-ed university in 1883, to one of the first studies examining “male sexual aggression on a university campus” in 1957, to comedian Amy Schumer’s recent parody of rape culture in sports, where a football coach rallies his losing team with a halftime speech full of mixed messages: “How do I get through to you boys that football isn’t about rape? It’s about violently dominating anyone that gets between you and what you want. Now you gotta get yourself into the mindsets that you are gods—that you are entitled to this!”

The slides end with three questions: “Have you ever felt unsafe on campus? Ever practiced bystander intervention? Anything you think the university should be doing?” By now, the pizza has arrived, the desks have been pulled into a circle, and the students—mostly young women—have plenty to say. They start with sex.

“People are like, ‘All right, use birth control,’” one student begins, “but no one’s like ‘Hey, what do you think about sex?’”

“Love it! 10 out of 10,” one girl quips. “Would recommend!” says another.

“People say, ‘Oh it’s amazing,’ but it can also be awkward or uncomfortable,” sophomore Aarti Bhat says. “I feel like with sex-ed, you don’t really get any accurate idea.”

More than 90 percent of UT students hail from Texas, where a 2009 Texas Freedom Network report found that 94 percent of public schools teach abstinence-only education. That’s a challenging education gap for UT as it tries to curb sexual assault. “If you’re getting abstinence-only education, you’re not going to hear about consent,” notes Gerberich, the Voices Against Violence volunteer. One of the resolutions the Women’s Resource Agency put forward this year asks UT to bridge that gap with more education surrounding self-defense and sexual-assault prevention during its new-student orientations each summer.

“UT’s consent education doesn’t cover enough. If you want to hold someone’s hand just ask them,” one student says, mimicking the advice she’d received from an orientation skit. “I feel like that’s just really silly. That’s not how it is.”


Others take issue with the online modules—which discuss sexual assault along with other issues, like alcohol safety—that new students must watch before registering for classes. “I think I just watched Netflix while I did it,” says sophomore and Women’s Resource Agency director Grace Gilker, who wants UT to teach these concepts in person, multiple times, and either during orientation or as soon as possible. The first two years of college, and the first few months of college in particular, are statistically the most dangerous time. August through November is commonly known as the “red zone”; those working at SafePlace, a nonprofit providing forensic exams or “rape kits” to Austinites who have been sexually assaulted—and which recently began offering the emergency service at UT’s health center—know it as their “busy season.”

“You’re coming into a new place, meeting new people,” one student explains. “You don’t have a lot of confidence as a girl at college. It’s that time of life, whatever.”

Another chimes in: “The climate is very much like, try new things, meet new people, put yourself out there.”

That mentality, says SafePlace community advocacy director Emily LeBlanc, BA ’00, MEd ’02, shouldn’t put anyone at greater risk of sexual assault. “You should be able to go to college and be naïve and live your life and not worry too much,” she says. “But the truth is it makes you a better target for perpetrators.”

The Women’s Resource Agency attendees are all too aware. So how to stop it? The question, for them, comes down to watching out for each other—a worthy goal that’s complicated in practice. Freshman Reghan Conrey poses this dilemma: Your drunk friend is heading home with someone. She’s laughing and seems into the guy in question, but he’s a stranger from the party and your friend is slurring her words and stumbling. You can’t tell what she wants. Conrey hasn’t always intervened, and in this she’s not alone—75 percent of UT students said they’ve done nothing in similar circumstances, according to the AAU survey.

“I’m obviously not perfect,” Conrey adds. “But we need to make a conscious effort to help these people.” Ask friends what they want before the night starts, someone suggests, when you’re all sober. What if they change their minds, another asks. What if they get mad? Junior Leah McCaskill has a blunt retort: “Better to be a c – – –  block than let your friend get raped.”

The students may not know it, but they’re practicing a key tenet of the White House Task Force’s prevention proposal: bystander intervention, a way of enlisting peers to stop assaults before they occur. BeVocal, a system-wide UT initiative, seeks to train staff and students in precisely this kind of intervention behavior.

Besides, Conrey concludes, “It’s hard for a city leader to do a lot. It’s easy for you to be like, ‘Hey, wait a second.’”

“We Need Men on This”

When she talks to students about sexual assault and consent, there’s a certain response Nancy Daley is looking for. “We are aiming to trigger people’s feelings,” Daley announces to her large lecture class one Monday morning in October. “That is our goal. I want everyone on this campus sensitized to the problem of sexual assault. No more rolled eyes. No more, ‘Oh, this topic again.’”

To illustrate, she tells the class about a former student of hers, a young man who attended a Take Back the Night event where students shared their experiences with sexual assault. As the student listened to the stories, he began to think, “That could be my mother. That could be my sister,” Daley says.  “And he threw up right then and there.”

That’s the kind of response Daley is looking for—from men especially, she tells the class. “We need men on this topic.”

The White House Task Force agrees. To date, most of its public service announcements—often humorous or celebrity-studded sketches—have both featured and targeted men, who are the most common perpetrators of rape. In its recommendations, the Task Force called upon college-aged men and men’s groups to participate in the effort to end sexual assault. To that end, this fall Voices Against Violence launched MasculinUT, which promotes healthier expressions of masculinity with the goal of preventing interpersonal and sexual violence on campus. For Juan Portillo, BBA ’06, MA ’12, a sociology graduate student who helped create MasculinUT, this means challenging gender assumptions held by both men and women. “We are all part of rape culture when we devalue women,” he says, “or when we push men to be strong and confrontational.”

Specifically, the White House Task Force named Greek organizations. Several studies, including a 2005 report from Ohio University, have found that men who join fraternities are more likely to engage in sexually coercive behavior. In interviews, numerous UT students mentioned troublesome practices they’d witnessed at fraternity parties, from themes like “CEOs and Office Hoes” to “girls-only punch.”


One of UT’s most visible student-led movements to end sexual assault arose from the Greek community as a joint effort between men and women. Not On My Campus, a social media campaign originating at Southern Methodist University, went viral through the efforts of UT fraternity and sorority leaders last spring, with everyone from the football team to then-President Bill Powers sharing photos alongside the hashtag #NotOnMyCampus. Senior Ellen Cocanougher, co-founder of Not On My Campus at UT and vice president of standards for the Panhellenic Council, the governing body for UT sororities, stressed that problems of sexual violence are not unique to fraternities, which she believes have been “ridiculed” on the issue. But, she added, “to solve a problem, you’ve got to start where the problem is.”

Each time Cocanougher spoke or tabled at an event last spring, she says, “I had two guys on either side of me.” More often than not, these were fraternity members Edwin Qian, BBA ’15, and senior William Herbst, who started Not On My Campus with her. “Having two male co-founders was really impactful.”

So are the efforts of the male UT leaders who have publically addressed these issues, according to SafePlace’s Lynne Skinner, BJ ’85, Life Member, and Melinda Cantu, MSW ’94. Both women cheered at the mention of UT football coach Charlie Strong, who suspended two players for allegedly sexually assaulting another student. Though a jury later acquitted Kendall Sanders in Oct. 2015 and prosecutors dropped charges against Montrel Meander, Strong didn’t wait for either case to go to trial. Weeks after the June 2014 incident, he announced the players’ suspension for violating a tenet of his now-famous team policy: Treat women with respect.

“Love it, love it, love it,” Cantu says of Strong’s policy. “That’s one piece that we can feel really good about. There are people in positions of extraordinary power [at UT] who absolutely hear what we’re saying.”

But that’s just a first step, according to LeBlanc of SafePlace. “It’s bigger than the university saying ‘We don’t think rape is a good thing.’” Since Cocanougher co-founded Not On My Campus, she’s seen evidence of rape culture everywhere, both subtle and glaring, both on campus and off: from the classic drive-in movie scene in Grease, where Danny gropes and kisses Sandy, ignoring her pleas to stop until she runs crying from the car—which always gets laughs, Cocanougher says—to the flippant attitude she and other interviewed students noted about the word “rape,” which they said is used as campus slang: “I totally raped that test.” With 45 percent of UT students reporting they have been sexually harassed during college, according to the AAU survey, it’s clear the university is up against deep-seated cultural norms. “UT is full of successful and empowered women, and we don’t hear about them nearly as much as we hear about the men,” LeBlanc says. “The culture at large still needs to be somewhere that men and women are viewed equally.”

Shine a Light

“Some people don’t realize that while the actual act is horrible,” reads another student essay once taped to Daley’s door, “the aftermath can hurt just as much.”

After a rape, Daley warns her students, “You’ll think you’re crazy. You’ll think it’ll never get better.” It will, she assures them, now nearing the end of her lecture on sexual coercion. “There’s a reorganization that happens in your mind, when you go from victim to survivor.”

For Serna, that reorganization began two Aprils ago. Serna stumbled on the event, called Take Back the Night. At the foot of the UT Tower, right in the middle of campus, person after person described their experience with sexual violence. Serna stayed to listen, and slowly began attending weekly VAV meetings. The next April, Serna stepped up to the mic and, for the first time, publicly named what had happened: rape. Sexual assault.

Serna still struggles. There’s the stalled education, for one, and all those extra loans. Recently, Serna filled out a course-reduction form. Before that, it was an appeal to extend financial aid. “I’m fighting every day to be a UT student,” Serna says.

Rape can cost a victim upward of $130,000, according to a study by Iowa State University researchers—from therapy bills to moving costs to missed work days. Busch-Armendariz intends to learn more about the economic effect of rape on students. “What’s the impact?” Busch-Armendariz says. “Do students change their major, for example? We know more about the mental health impact, but we know a whole lot less about the economic impact.” This fall, Busch-Armendariz and Leila Wood, MSW ’08, also a UT researcher, launched a study that will follow a cohort of student survivors for multiple years at UT. “Somehow,” Busch- Armendariz adds, “we need to open the doors wider, and maybe take a flashlight and shine the flashlight brighter.”

As police, presidents, researchers, activists, and yes, universities, work toward solutions to this old, huge problem, Daley has a message for the people most affected by their efforts: “I think of rape as one big steaming pile of s – – – that someone has handed you,” she tells her class. “You don’t want it. You didn’t ask for it. But now it’s yours. What are you going to do with it?”

Photos from top: A “UT Gets Consent” sign on campus; educational psychology professor Nancy Daley keeps a file of students’ stories about sexual assault. “We hear from students every semester,” she says; students talk strategy at a Voices Against Violence meeting on Jan. 26; associate vice president and Title IX coordinator LaToya Hill; UT student and sexual assault survivor Linda Serna; sophomore and Women’s Resource Agency director Grace Gilker leads a meeting; seniors and Greek life leaders William Herbst, left, and Ellen Cocanougher founded the Not On My Campus movement at UT. Photos by Sandy Carson


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