Could SEC recruiting rules have prevented sexual assault at Baylor?

The Southeastern Conference is expanding its rules to bar transfer students disciplined for violence as Baylor University faces controversy.

LM Otero/AP/File
Baylor president Ken Starr waits to run onto the field before an NCAA college football game in Waco, Texas, in September 2015. New rules from the Southeastern Conferences would prohibit transfer students with a history of violence, sexual assault, or stalking from attending member schools. The Big 12, of which Baylor is a member, adopted less strict rules last year.

As Baylor University in Waco,Texas, grapples with allegations that university officials mishandled sexual assault cases against members of its football team, another powerful athletic conference in the South is strengthening its recruiting rules on students disciplined for sexual assault.

The Southeastern Conference is expanding rules adopted last year to prohibit players with a history of sexual assault, stalking or interpersonal violence from transferring to any of its 14 member universities.

"We set the standard last year, and others have followed," SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey told The New York Times on Tuesday following the first day of the conference’s spring meetings. "Our policies will become more clear this week. We'll see if they continue to follow."

The move is particularly significant coming after the revelations at Baylor, a Baptist institution that was rocked by an independent investigation released this month that found a "fundamental failure" in how the university investigated sexual assault cases involving football players. On Wednesday, a 2001 Baylor graduate told ESPN she had filed a Title IX complaint against the university.

Colleges around the country have overhauled their policies on sexual assault in response to national campaigns launched by survivors of sexual assault and increased scrutiny by the federal Department of Education. But the scandal at Baylor illustrates what some say is still troubling about the power and influence of sports on campus, while others say some universities' responses go too far in denying students due process rights.

"Universities need to give everyone a fair process and they need to treat everyone the same way and athletes should receive no special benefit in a misconduct proceeding … but all students need to be treated fairly," says Samantha Harris, director of policy research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in Philadelphia.

In some cases, says Ms. Harris, pressure on universities to keep high-profile athletes enrolled can prompt them cover up sexual assault allegations, harming victims whose cases go un-investigated.

But in others, she argues, pressure from an investigation by the Education Department under Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits gender discrimination in education, has caused some universities to move too far and deny accused students their due process rights in a campus hearing.

The Southeastern Conference's rules are particularly aimed at a scenario that arose at Baylor involving a player who transferred from another school.

During the trial of Sam Ukwuachu, a former defensive end convicted of sexually assaulting a female Baylor soccer player, a former girlfriend testified he assaulted her while he was playing for Boise State University. Officials from Baylor claimed they hadn't known of Mr. Ukwuachu's history, but Boise State disputed the denial.

Baylor is a member of the Big 12 conference, which followed the SEC last year and adopted its own rules barring students disciplined for "serious misconduct." It defined those actions as "sexual assault, domestic violence other other forms of sexual violence." The SEC's rules now go further by barring transfer students disciplined for offenses that involve violence and stalking.

The conference is also creating a standard set of questions that each university will use before accepting a transfer student. If a player's behavior leads to an expulsion from one university, for example, that player won't be accepted into the conference, The New York Times reports.

But Ms. Harris of FIRE argues the increase in scrutiny also needs to maintain students' due process rights.

"Since universities tend to act in their own interest, there may still be universities that are covering things up, or trying to sweep things under the rug to avoid bad publicity," she says. "But what we have seen as a result of the increased attention to [sexual assault on campus] is that a lot of universities have adopted offices that make it easier to find accused students guilty but that do not guarantee any sort of fair process or reliable outcome."

Some coaches have also pushed to expand the stricter recruiting rules to freshmen. Mr. Sankey said the rules would leave decisions about eligibility for freshmen athletes to individual universities for now. "It was a good topic of conversation, but at the moment the focus is on transfers," he told CBS Sports.

At Baylor, the report by law firm Pepper Hamilton found the university "did not consistently conduct due diligence" in vetting transfer students. In one case, a coach also retaliated against a student who had reported a sexual assault, an action that is prohibited under Title IX.

In response, the university fired football coach Art Briles and demoted university president Kenneth Starr, who became prominent for his role in the impeachment trial of former President Bill Clinton.

On Wednesday, Mr. Starr also stepped down from his post as chancellor, telling ESPN he was resigning immediately "as a matter of conscience." He will continue to teach at the university's law school.

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