Saturday, November 5, 2016

Common misconceptions about the Baylor sexual assault scandal


The media coverage of Baylor University’s sexual assault scandal continues, and I give thanks that the outside world is keeping the world’s largest Baptist university in the spotlight.

In one of the more recent news accounts, the headline proclaims that Baylor’s scandal is “far worse than previously disclosed.” This “far worse” reality should come as no surprise to anyone who read the Pepper Hamilton investigatory report, released last May, because the horror of the scandal’s scope was always right there, both in the lines and between the lines. As one Dallas radio host recently said: “We knew it was all going to come out someday. It was a matter of time.”

With multiple legal claims now pending against Baylor, I predict that still more of the ugly truth will come out via the slow drip of revelations from depositions and discovery. Here are a few common misconceptions that I expect will be completely debunked in the coming months.  

Baylor’s failure in dealing with sexual assault is not a recent anomaly.

Many have talked about the Baylor scandal as though it were an anomaly of recent years coinciding with Baylor’s push toward becoming a football powerhouse. This is a mistaken assumption that is not supported by the Pepper Hamilton investigatory report.

The reason the investigatory report focused on only three academic years, 2012-2015, is because Baylor officials specified those years as the “scope of engagement” when they hired the investigatory firm, and because the firm stayed within the designated “scope of engagement,” as it expressly stated on pages 1 and 2 of its report. The mere fact that Baylor officials limited the investigatory firm’s scope of engagement to only three years does not mean that Baylor’s problem existed for only three years. Rather it simply means that the investigatory firm was never hired to review anything beyond those three years.

One can only imagine what a predicament it may have been for Baylor if it had allowed the investigatory firm to review the university’s handling of sexual assault reports prior to 2012. Why? Because federal law requires that universities report crime statistics to the U.S. Department of Education, and because despite this federal requirement, Baylor did not report a single instance of sexual assault occurring between 2008 and 2011.

The fact that Baylor didn’t report any assaults for that four-year period doesn’t mean there weren’t any. To the contrary, Neena Chaudhry of the National Women’s Law Center described Baylor’s “zero incidents” report as a “red flag” which means, she said, that “it’s probably not true.” Similarly, assistant district attorney Hillary LaBorde, who works for McClennan County where Baylor is located, said it was “ridiculous” to think that Baylor had no sexual assaults during those years.

Not only do Baylor’s “zero incident” filings suggest that the university was likely noncompliant with federal law even prior to 2012, but there is also powerful evidence that Baylor had a problem with its handling of sexual assault reports as far back as 1991. That was when Baylor failed to act on a freshman girl’s sexual assault report against undergraduate ministerial student Matt Baker, who was later convicted of murder. According to a 2008 Texas Monthly exposé, Baylor not only “took no action” on the girl’s assault report, but it also discouraged her from going to the police; then a few years later, Baylor even readmitted Baker into its Truett Theological Seminary. The institutional failures described in that Texas Monthly article are quite similar to the failures that we now see described in the Pepper Hamilton report. If only Baylor had shown some care when its failures were made public in 2008, much subsequent harm may have been prevented. But it didn’t, as the current scandal makes apparent.

The football program was only one part of Baylor’s broader institutional failures.

In its gross mishandling of sexual assault reports, Baylor’s institutional failures went far beyond the athletic program. Yet, over and over again, columnists and commentators have talked about Baylor’s failures as though things had simply gotten “out of hand with football” while the rest of the university was doing things right. Baylor regent, James Cary Gray, recently reinforced this misconception, telling the Wall Street Journal that Baylor had been “putting winning football games above everything else.”

This notion that the scandal was only about football got a lot of traction, but it was never true. Worse, it is a misconception that has served to minimize the true massive scope of Baylor’s institutional failures.

From the get-go, the Pepper Hamilton findings of fact refuted this misconception by pointing to “broader University failings” and by expressly stating that there were “institutional failures at every level of Baylor’s administration.” More recently, this misconception was refuted by Baylor’s first full-time Title IX coordinator, Peggy Crawford, who stated that football was “only a small component” of Baylor’s problem and who affirmed that Baylor’s failure was manifest at the highest levels, including the board of regents. Crawford also filed a formal complaint against Baylor, claiming that the university’s senior leadership had retaliated against her for trying to do her job of addressing sexual assault allegations. Finally, the regents themselves effectively negated this misconception when they informed the Wall Street Journal that “football players were involved in 10.4 percent of the Title IX-reported incidents during the four-year period ending in 2014-15.” A recent Dallas Morning News editorial asked the obvious question: “What about all the other sexual assault reports?”

Certainly, Baylor did indeed throw “all manner of decency to the wind” in favor of building its football program. That is clear from the three pages that Pepper Hamilton devoted to findings about failures in Baylor’s athletic program. But from the other ten pages of findings, it is also clear that the problem at Baylor is about a whole lot more than the sexual violence of some student athletes.

It is about university officials who became inured to violence against women. It is about university officials who essentially thumbed their noses at federal laws designed for the protection of women. It is about university officials who allowed themselves to become complicit in violence and in the betrayal of young women charged to their care. It is about the abysmal failure of university officials to be forthright in their handling of problems. It is about university officials who not only “contributed to or accommodated a hostile environment,” but who also directly discouraged” sexual assault complainants from reporting.

Federal law, civil lawsuits and the media are prodding change, not Baptist values.

Within mere days after the Pepper Hamilton report was released, many Baptist bloggers and commentators were immediately singing the praises of Baylor’s regents for rising to their Baptist heritage and restoring Baptist values. This too-fast optimism not only belied the entrenched depth of the institutional problem, but it also misplaced priorities in envisaging a solution. Rather than beating the drum for “Baptist values,” Baylor would do far better to focus on the values that underlie federal laws for the protection of women and to ensure Baylor’s compliance with both the letter and the spirit of those laws.

After all, Baylor has not been brought to accountability by virtue of any oversight exercised by Baptists. No. Despite Baylor’s strong affiliation with the Baptist General Convention of Texas (which elects 25 percent of the Baylor board of regents), we are not learning the truth about this horrific scandal from within the world of Baptists, but rather, from without it.

This is why I am so thankful for the continuing media coverage of this scandal. I have seen no reason to believe that Baylor’s regents are truly committed to the hard road of institutional change; rather, it is the discomfort of the media’s spotlight, the processes of our civil justice system, and the obligations of federal law that will ultimately prod Baylor into creating a campus where young women who report sexual assault will be treated with dignity and decency. That day is long overdue.  

Sexual violence is pervasive and pernicious, and all sorts of institutions have failed miserably in dealing with it. Baylor has that in common with the rest of the world. But as a Baptist institution, Baylor has some additional challenges. It is “commonplace in Baptist life to dismiss women’s voices,” and this aspect of Baptists’ heritage tends to work against their ability to hear women who allege sexual assault. Moreover, in Baptistland in general, we have seen massive resistance to institutionally addressing sexual violence in churches, particularly when the violence is committed by Baptist clergy. This too is an aspect of Baptist culture that works against Baylor.

It is as though the masses in Baptistland hold some unspoken belief that this just doesn’t happen in their world. Indeed, this was one of the findings of fact in the Pepper Hamilton report: Baylor’s failures occurred in “the context of a broader culture and belief by many administrators that sexual violence ‘doesn’t happen here.’” Thus, the Baylorite belief that Baptist values make them somehow special is not necessarily a belief that forms part of the solution; to the contrary, it is more likely to be part of the problem.
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Updates:
"Sexual assault crisis could cost Baylor $223 million, expert estimates," The Baptist Standard, 12/13/2016. (Included in those costs are $32.9 million in "legal, consulting and public relations" expenses. Yet, even while spending millions on lawyers and public relations gurus, Baylor has not been able to squelch the stench of the scandal. Not this time. Note too that a prominent donor, who has naming rights to the football field, is considering putting his next installment into an escrow account "until we have transparency, accountability and reform" at Baylor.)
"New Baylor lawsuit alleges 52 rapes by football players in 4 years," Dallas Morning News, 1/27/2017. ("As hard as the events at Baylor have been for people to hear, what went on there was much worse than has been reported.")