What Baylor’s Sexual Assault Settlement Says About College Responsibility for Student Safety — or Lack Thereof

Baylor University recently settled a seven-year lawsuit related to its handling of sexual assault allegations, but the scandal has broader implications for student safety at school.
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Published on October 16, 2023
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  • Baylor settled a lawsuit brought by 15 former students alleging the college ignored sexual violence.
  • The Baptist college claimed that it was not responsible for off-campus sexual misconduct — and current Title IX rules agree.
  • The scandal raises questions about the responsibility of colleges to protect students.

What responsibility do colleges have to protect students from sexual violence? That question rested at the heart of a seven-year lawsuit brought by 15 women against Baylor University in June 2016.

The women accused Baylor, the largest Baptist college in the country, of ignoring reports of sexual assault. The lawsuit also alleged that Baylor officials pressured women not to report assault.

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, said Chad Dunn, one of the attorneys involved in the lawsuit.

In Sept. 2023, the women reached a settlement agreement with Baylor, but the scandal reveals a larger problem with how colleges address sexual misconduct and violence.

How Baylor Mishandled the Sexual Assault Allegations

The Baylor sexual assault scandal began when school officials ignored allegations of sexual violence. As early as 2012, Baylor athletics officials knew that multiple football players had sexually assaulted a female athlete. Yet the officials took no action.

In total, 17 women accused 19 Baylor football players of assault. The allegations also reached beyond the football program. By 2015, two Baylor football players had been convicted of sexual assault. As the scandal spread, Baylor turned to the law firm Pepper Hamilton to investigate the college’s response to sexual assault claims.

The Pepper Hamilton report, concluded in May 2016, determined that Baylor mishandled assault claims, allowing the football program to operate as if above the rules. Investigators also determined that the school’s strict code of conduct and response to victims discouraged students from reporting sexual assaults.

In the aftermath of the scandal, Baylor fired head football coach Art Briles and demoted the school’s president Ken Starr, who later resigned.

But Baylor’s legal trouble continued. Several former students filed lawsuits against the university, including a 2017 lawsuit that accused Baylor of allowing a culture of sexual violence to thrive in the football program.

The college’s Title IX coordinator, Patty Crawford, also accused Baylor of breaking federal gender discrimination rules. Crawford’s complaints led to a federal civil rights investigation against the college.

In addition, the NCAA investigated Baylor’s handling of the assault allegations, concluding in 2021 that the school was guilty of moral and ethical failings but did not violate NCAA rules.

Baylor’s handling of the scandal raises questions about how colleges should handle campus sexual violence — and what responsibility schools have for off-campus violence.

On-Campus vs. Off-Campus Responsibility

Campus sexual violence does not always take place on campus. Yet, when a Baylor student sued the school in 2016 for sexual assault, Baylor claimed that the school had no responsibility because the attack took place off-campus.

The student, known as Jane Doe, reported to the school that she was drugged and abducted by Baylor students while at an off-campus residence. Baylor officials had known about several previous assaults at the residence and told Jane Doe about two other reported victims. Yet five weeks into its investigation, the school abruptly dropped the case.

Jane Doe’s lawsuit accused Baylor of ignoring rape claims and creating a hunting ground for sexual predators to freely prey upon innocent, unsuspecting female students, with no concern of reprisal or consequences.

In response, Baylor urged the court to dismiss the lawsuit because the alleged crimes took place off campus. The school’s responsibility for student safety ended, Baylor argued, when students left campus.

Baylor ultimately settled the lawsuit with Jane Doe and several other suits brought by former students. But the question of a college’s responsibility for off-campus sexual violence remains open.

Under Obama-era rules, colleges were liable for sexual harassment and misconduct regardless of where it took place. In 2020, Trump’s Department of Education passed new Title IX regulations stating that colleges are not responsible when sexual assault takes place in study abroad programs or in private off-campus settings.

The new regulations declared that a school’s responsibility only extends past the boundaries of campus in the case of officially recognized organizations, such as athletic housing or fraternity and sorority housing.

Critics of the change worry that limiting school responsibility puts students at risk.

If you experience violence or harassment that’s gender- or sex-based off campus, there’s really nothing that your school can do unless your school has a particular policy that they have chosen to implement to protect you, KT Fitzgerald, a student at Binghamton University, told Inside Higher Education. But, federally, under Title IX, you’re no longer protected if something happens to you off campus.

The Biden Administration proposed stronger Title IX sexual misconduct rules that would extend past the boundaries of campus, but as of Oct. 2023, they have not gone into effect. When they do, the Biden rules would hold universities responsible for off-campus sexual misconduct, as did the previous Obama-era rules. By expanding the duty to protect students, the new rules could potentially discourage the blurry lines that leave victims vulnerable.

Transparency, Accountability, and Sexual Assault

Critics of Baylor’s handling of the sexual assault scandal point to the university’s lack of transparency as a barrier to holding Baylor accountable.

Baylor has never released the Pepper Hamilton report that led to the firing or resignation of multiple athletics officials and the college president. Details released from the report indicate that it would be damning for Baylor.

In 2017, university regents released details that blamed Briles for the institution’s handling of assault allegations. The report indicated that in 2012, Briles ignored an alleged gang rape even after a victim identified multiple football players. Instead of reporting the athletes or alerting the university, Briles blamed the victim. These are some bad dudes, Briles reportedly said, according to the report. Why was she around those guys?

The Pepper Hamilton report not only targeted the football program and its handling of the accusations, but it also criticized the university’s campus-wide response to sexual assault and physical violence.

Baylor’s focus of media attention on football tried to misdirect attention from institutional failures of the Baylor administration, said attorney Dunn.

Baylor has claimed that in the wake of the Pepper Hamilton report, the school has made major changes to how it handles allegations of sexual assault. However, the Pepper Hamilton report remains unreleased despite legal efforts to force Baylor to make the report public.

Without transparency from Baylor, current and future students, along with their families, may wonder if the university truly has corrected the mistakes of the past. While commissioning the Pepper Hamilton report indicates an attempt at accountability, keeping it secret implies that the school places its reputation above stamping out sexual assault.

The Baylor Settlement and Student Safety

In Sept. 2023, Baylor reached a settlement with the 15 women who filed the 2016 lawsuit. The specifics of the settlement agreement have not been released.

We are deeply sorry for anyone connected with the Baylor community who has been harmed by sexual violence. While we can never erase the reprehensible acts of the past, we pray that this agreement will allow these 15 survivors to move forward in a supportive manner, Baylor University said in a statement.

The settlement may have resolved the dispute, but it left larger questions about how colleges handle campus sexual violence unresolved.

Dunn hopes that the lawsuit will change the system. Their bravery and strength has created legal precedents that empower others to gain relief from the injuries inflicted by their universities while also securing safer education environments for future generations.

Until Title IX forces colleges to address off-campus sexual violence, the decision of whether to protect students on and off campus will remain with individual schools. While some schools have instituted their own policies that offer stronger protections, others apply current federal regulations. And unfortunately, as the Baylor case indicates, sexual misconduct remains a pervasive problem in higher education.

What can college students do? Most don’t read sexual misconduct policies when choosing between schools. But once they’re on campus, students have a powerful voice. Student activists can pressure colleges to learn from the Baylor sexual assault scandal and take action to stop college sexual violence.