Southern Methodist University Launches Task Force After String Of Sexual Assaults Reported By Students

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SOUTHERN METHODIST UNIVERSITY
Students walk in front of Dallas Hall on the Southern Methodist University campus January 23, 2007 in Dallas, Texas. (Brian Harkin/Getty Images) | Getty Images
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Southern Methodist University is taking heat over how it has handled a string of sexual assaults involving students at the Texas school.

Two students in separate cases were arrested last month on sexual assault charges. However, it raised eyebrows as people noted it took eight months to bring charges in one case while only a few days in the other. In response to the controversy, SMU announced a special task force to review how the school handles reports of sexual violence.

Administrative action aside, problems persist on the Texas campus. On Wednesday, just a day before the first task force meeting, students received a crime alert warning of another sexual assault; this one allegedly targeting a young woman in her apartment west of campus by an acquaintance and fellow SMU student. The incident became the fifth sexual assault reported this year and the third in the past six weeks to go under investigation by University Park police.

At least 40 sexual assaults were reported since 2006, according to the SMU Daily Campus, and almost all of them from SMU students. Over the past 25 years, more than 100 women at SMU reported being sexually assaulted. But the Daily Campus notes up until May 2012, only one case was successfully prosecuted -- when three men were convicted and sentenced for raping a 20-year-old student at gunpoint.

SMU's policy is to treat sexual assaults between students primarily as violations of the student code of conduct. Anna Merlan at the Dallas Observer notes "allegations of sexual assault where both parties are students in a system of confidential on-campus hearings, in which the maximum possible penalty is expulsion." If they're interested in filing a criminal charge, students are told SMU police and Student Life will assist them.

The university defends the approach.

"It's very effective," SMU Police Chief Richard Shafer told the Daily Campus. "It has helped people heal."

Even as SMU President R. Gerald Turner announced the task force, he defended their current process.

"Although our procedures are examined regularly, and mirror those of many other institutions, the Task Force will be a timely opportunity to broaden deliberations and conversation on this critical matter,” Turner said in a statement to the Dallas Morning News. "Its focus will include not only how sexual misconduct allegations are addressed at SMU but also how the university can strengthen prevention and education on this important topic."

The 20 member task force includes students, attorneys, trustees and faculty members.

The task force held its first meeting Thursday. They're due to release a report with recommendations for improvement in March 2013.

Ali Williams, a 21-year-old SMU junior, told CBS Dallas-Fort Worth part of the problem is a lack of education about the issue.

“When I was a freshman, I don't remember there being any talk about sexual assault," Williams said. "So, that definitely needs to be brought up and the seriousness needs to be known."

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