Student speaks out about sexual assault at Texas Tribune Festival

Sierra Smith, a senior student, was a keynote speaker on a student panel at the Texas Tribune Festival this weekend. Smith advocates a bill that would mark students transcripts after they have been expelled or suspended from a university. Photo credit: Courtesy Photo

By Cameron Bocanegra | Reporter

Mansfield senior Sierra Smith participated as a keynote speaker on the sexual assault panel at the Texas Tribune Festival over the weekend. She spoke on recent Title IX changes and her advocacy of a bill that would require state colleges and universities that receive public funding to mark the transcripts of students suspended or expelled even after they have transferred.

A few months after her assault in April 2016, she said she reported the incident because of the weight of the trauma affecting her daily life at on campus.

“Federally, Title IX is suppose to take around sixty days to close a report or investigate, but mine took nearly a year,” Smith said.

Her case was one of many during the period of Baylor’s sexual assault scandals, but hers focused on protecting the next survivors of her assailant since her assailant was able to transfer before the investigation was complete and start over with a clean transcript.

“When you’re accusing someone, you go in feeling like you are going to lose,” Smith said. “The entire time I was going through the process, I heard something more deterring everyday and it made me even more hopeless towards the end of the investigation.”

Eventually, Smith’s assailant was found guilty, but he had already found a new life at another school that was unaware of his past.

“It is not fair for his next victim at the next university to go against his word when his word has already been proven to mean nothing,” Smith stated. “Now he is continuing his education free of any consequences. He did something wrong and he was found guilty. There are repercussions that come with it.”

During the panel, Smith, Texas Rep. J.M. Lozano, Sen. Kirk Watson, ESPN reporter Paula Levigne and Dr. Wanda Mercer, vice chancellor of the University of Texas System, discussed the recent changes Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has recently made.

“DeVos raising that proof level is going to deter survivors from coming forward even more,” Smith said during the panel. “It is already so hard to say something like this happened and now you are suppose to prove beyond the doubt that it did happen.”

These big picture changes are ones Smith cannot battle alone, but she has help from lawmakers such as Lozano and Watson. Lozano has been working to revive her bill since it passed through the committee and died in the senate.

“I do believe the transcripts bill will move further along and possibly become law next session, especially in light of the Secretary DeVos ruling,” Lozano said.

In many universities and colleges, student assailants have avoided repercussions for their actions by transferring to another institute before the investigation is complete.

Dr. Mercer researches campus assaults and has reminded schools for years that college students will transfer to avoid disciplinary proceedings.

“It grieves me that Baylor failed to protect Sierra,” Mercer said. “Universities will say, ‘This should not follow an assailant for their entire life.’ Usually, if you are suspended, then the notation is on your transcript. It doesn’t follow them forever, but it follows them for the time that that sanction is assigned, at the least.”

Although it is Smith’s senior year and Baylor’s name is gradually moving out of the spotlight, she is thankful for opportunities like the festival to advocate for a cause that will protect the justice of future sexual assault survivors.

“At Baylor, I have gotten to watch the change in the community and culture around this issue,” Smith said. “I have seen a huge switch in the way students react to things like this now. There is a lot of support. I see students really coming together to want to make a difference.”

Smith said that every time she speaks out about her experience with sexual assault, her goal is to show other survivors that it is okay to speak openly and shamelessly about what has happened to them.

“I never thought I’d be asked to represent a survivor’s point of view on a panel like this, but it is just so important that every survivor knows that they are not alone,” Smith said.

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