Special Report: Breaking the silence

Special Report: Breaking the silence

EAST TEXAS (KLTV/KTRE) - Widespread reports of sexual assaults on college campuses have some advocates calling it an epidemic, but it hasn't gone unnoticed by the Federal Government.

However, more than 150 colleges are currently under scrutiny for possible violations of Title IX, a federal law that protects victims from discrimination. Among the violations: inaccurate reporting of sex crimes. Federal law requires colleges and universities to make crime statistics public, but are some of the nation's biggest colleges sweeping those statistics under the rug?

In Part 1 of our investigation, we took a close look at what schools are reporting to the feds, and whether that matches what is actually happening. In Part 2, we'll look at some disturbing reports from college student victims who reported that the majority of their abuse didn't happen in college, but actually happened in grade school.

See Part 1 of our investigation below.

A growing number of colleges and universities are being investigated to see if acts of sexual violence were mishandled on their campus.

Five of those colleges are in Texas: Cisco Junior College, Texas A&M at College Station, University of Texas - Pan American, Trinity University, and the University of Houston, according to the U.S. Department of Education and Office of Civil Rights. A total of 161 schools in the U.S. face scrutiny in 199 sexual violence cases as of January 27 for possibly violating Title IX. This federal law  prohibits discrimination against those who have been sexually assaulted.

"There's a lot of pain and suffering associated [with assault], not just with it occurring but, of course, with it being public," said Laura Dunn. "Survivors are speaking out more than they ever have before."

Dunn reported being sexually assaulted at the University of Wisconsin Madison in 2004.  She is now an attorney in Washington D.C. who helps student victims through a nonprofit company SurvJustice.

"I think there's this idea for people who don't know a lot about the issue that it's very simple, you just go report, people automatically believe you and then investigate to show it's happened," Dunn said. "It's almost the exact opposite. people are skeptical about your report, even though statistics show that rape is no more false reported than any other major felony."

Dunn believes many sexual assaults reported to college officials by students, do not get fully investigated.

"Unfortunately, some campuses have their own police force, which I think is a very bad practice. Campus police are part of the campus system and they don't want waves."

Under reporting of crimes or a failure to make a report about the crime also violates federal law. Under the Clery Act, colleges and universities are required to report the number of incidents of sexual assault, date violence, stalking and other related crimes on their campuses to the federal government.

"[We're] trying to make sure that the college can't sweep these things under the rug," said U.S. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia. "I'm the father of three college-age daughters, and when you hear stories from my daughters about what happened on their college campus – not to them, but to others -when you see data that shows that literally 1 out of 5 women are assaulted, that it's a higher rate on college campuses than in the general population, we've got to bring this to an end. this is almost an epidemic."

KLTV's investigation of East Texas colleges including UT Tyler, Tyler Junior College, Kilgore College, and Stephen F. Austin found that they are accurately reporting crimes reported on campus to the federal government.

UT Tyler Title IX coordinator Blake Bumbard said their campus policies help ensure they are in line with the laws.

"I think that a student or parent should be very wary of any crime statistics page that they look at that shows all zeros like some universities do," said Bumbard. "The purpose of [the Clery Act] is primarily to give students and parents those statistics so that they can make  an informed decision into the university or college that they choose."

Texas lawmakers take on college sex assaults

Texas house bill in 2015 wanted to make having a sexual assault policy mandatory at public colleges and universities.

The bill required that schools put in writing exactly what behavior was prohibited, and what punishment perpetrators would face.  The bill also asked schools to establish a protocol for reporting and responding to sexual assaults on campus.

The majority of East Texas lawmakers voted against the bipartisan bill, authored by two democrats and one republican.

Senators Bob Hall and Robert Nichols voted 'no' to House Bill 699. Senator Kevin Eltife voted in favor of the bill.

Nichols said despite the bill's good motives, no provisions were made for the state to pay schools for the changes.

"Therefore an unfunded mandate and that's primarily why I did it, I voted no," said Sen. Nichols.

Five East Texas house representatives voted against the bill, Dan Flynn, Bryan Hughes, Matt Schaefer, David Simpson, and Stuart Spitzer. Three voted 'yes': Trent Ashby, Travis Clardy, and Chris Paddie.

"For young adults, in a lot of instances, they just left home and are on their own," said Rep. Clardy. "What should be a very positive learning and education experience does not need to be marred or ruined by sexual violence."

Clardy said he found that many Texas schools already had similar policies on the books.

HB699 passed and was signed into law by Governor Gregg Abbott in June of last year.

While Dunn agrees that this type of legislation helps move society at least one step closer to ending sexual violence, she advocates for earlier awareness.

"I think sexual violence will continue to be a problem until our country invests in meaningful prevention education that starts in middle school and is emphasized throughout high school. We can't wait until college. It's too late."

Part 2

Statistics related to sexual assault and children are rising nationally.  The National Center for Crime Victims reports 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys will be sexually assaulted before they are adults.

Once in college, the high rate of sexual crimes continues. Federal agencies, as of January 27, are investigating 161 colleges and universities in 199 cases of mishandling sexual assault reports.

Related: Breaking the Silence: Texas colleges face scrutiny for under-reporting sex assaults

No East Texas colleges or universities are the subject of these investigations, but efforts are ongoing to increase awareness and limit incidents.

"Our students generally are right out of high school; the vast majority of them are young men and women," said Fred Peters, director of public affairs at Tyler Junior College. "Their moms and dads entrust us with keeping us safe, and that's the most important thing."

Victims advocates, like D.C. attorney Laura Dunn, say sex assault awareness and education can't wait until college. Dunn is motivated by the college sex assault victims she represents.

"I think sexual violence will continue to be a problem until our country invests in meaningful prevention education that starts in middle school and is emphasized throughout high school," said Dunn.

The scope of that problem in East Texas can be tracked in college student counseling center intake data obtained from UT Tyler.

On the anonymous questionnaire, students were anonymously asked if someone had sexual contact with them without their consent. The overwhelming number of incidents, students said, occurred 'more than five years ago' according to UT Tyler documents dated between 2011 to 2015.  A total of 73 instances were recorded by the student responders during a time they likely were still in grade school.

Forensic interviewer Rubyth Renteria in Smith County said it's never too early to begin to talk to a child about sexual assault.

"We do teach them that bathing suits cover private parts, parts of the body that no one should see, touch, or take a picture of," Renteria said.

"I was actually at an elementary school and when I asked the kids did they know what private parts were; they had no idea."

Renteria takes a sex abuse curriculum called "Happy Bear" into Smith County schools grades K-12, but she wishes they were welcome in more school districts across East Texas.

"For some schools, sex abuse is very taboo," said Renteria. "So many are scared of having it on their campus and it's just letting them know that 'hey it's not a scary thing, we can together work together to actually even improve scores because maybe their victimization is what's hindering them from learning or causing a disability to be able to pass the STAAR test.'"

The National Center for Victims of Crime estimates 1 in every 5 girls and 1 in every 20 boys will be sexually assaulted before the age of 17

Tanna Barrett, a mother of three and advocate for sex assault victims struggles with what age is the right age to talk about sexual assault with her children.

"No one wants to see that side of humanity," said Barrett. "Having the conversation about the birds and the bees makes any parent quake in their boots, I'm still a little nervous about talking to my 10 year old on what's appropriate."

Barrett says she knows that without that education component, many children may not know how to report abuse.

"We educate on kidnapping, we educate on stranger danger. How does a child even answer that question of have you been touched inappropriately if they don't even know what it means?"

Ken Vaughn, operations officer at Tyler Independent School District said they've had some form of sex abuse training for all grades as far back as he can remember.

"There's always a challenge, especially with elementary kids, of parents feeling that it's not best for schools to teach [about sex abuse], because it's their responsibility."

Vaughn said parents are allowed to opt their child out of the programming if they don't want it taught to their child.

Without schools reinforcing this kind of safety, Renteria said some young children may not understand that they are living as victims.

"A child may think it's normal behavior...that's what they've known since as young as they can remember, so they grow up thinking it's normal for whoever is doing this to me," said Renteria. "And once they receive that education they realize, ok, maybe this wasn't normal."

In Texas, a law also known as Jenna's law requires sex abuse education to be happening at every grade level in public schools.

Copyright 2016 KLTV and KTRE. All rights reserved.