EDINBURG — The University of Texas Rio-Grande Valley is one of the safest colleges in the nation, according to UTRGV Police Department Chief Raul Munguia. Statistics from the school’s legacy institutions may support that notion.
“When you look at the total assaults across the entire year, they’re very low,” the former Austin Police Department chief of staff said. “As far as here, do I see anything I’m alarmed about? No. These individual things that occur are concerning to me, though.”
Statistics about sexual assaults, domestic violence and similar incidents reported to the new university have yet to be published. But recent records comparing the University of Texas–Pan American and the University of Texas-Brownsville to similarly populated schools show they had relatively low rates of such crimes during their last year of existence.
UTPA had 21,015 students enrolled in 2014, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Sam Houston State University had 19,573.
UTB’s 8,009 enrolled student population came closest to the University of Texas at Tyler’s 8,036.
SHSU had three reported cases of forcible sex in 2014, the most recent data available, while UTPA, UTB’s and UT Tyler’s main campuses each had one. When it comes to other offenses, the gaps become greater.
Under the Clery Act, forcible sex offenses are rape, sexual assault, sodomy, fondling and sexual assault with an object. The act promotes transparency across public colleges by requiring university police departments to report crime statistics annually.
While the Hunstville school had seven reports of stalking and UTPA had six in 2014, SHSU garnered many more reports of domestic and dating violence than the legacy school. UTPA’s single domestic violence report paled against SHSU’s 10. The same goes for UTPA’s three reports of dating violence compared to SHSU’s 12.
Numbers in these areas were lower — sometimes nonexistent — at both UTB and UT-Tyler.
UTB had a single case of domestic violence and two for stalking in 2014. Its Tyler counterpart respectively counted zero and one case. The largest distinction for the pair that year came in the form of dating violence. UT Tyler ended with five cases while UTB didn’t have any such reports.
A common trend between all four institutions is most of those crimes, or reports of them, decreased from 2013. From 2012 to 2013, the local schools saw rises or no change.
One factor that may affect those numbers, according to Cynthia Jones, director for UTRGV’s Office for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention, is that victims are underreporting the incidents.
“Most of the cases we deal with, we don’t have to report to anybody unless the students want to report,” she said. “There are a lot more cases that occur that don’t get reported officially to the university.”
Intimidation might also discourage students from reporting such crimes. Sandra Barba, a music education student at UTRGV, said that might be the case for her if she found herself in that situation.
“I say that I would (report), but I don’t know if in that moment it’s something that I would feel embarrassed about or maybe just too scared to come up about it,” the 20-year-old said in the UTRGV Edinburg campus library. “Sometimes, not always, but sometimes, (police) say they need more evidence or they won’t believe people, so it’s just something I would need to speak to other people about before.”
If UTRGV staff’s efforts to encourage more students to come forward about those crimes work, those numbers will rise come October.
REASONS BEHIND SHIFTS
There could be several causes for the ups and downs.
Jones said the Office for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention, which advises victims of sexual assault, dating and domestic violence as well as several other traumatic events, could see 15 people in a week or none at all.
When a female student reported being groped in a stairwell on the Edinburg campus the night of April 18, Jones said she received many more questions from people asking about safety and what to do in such a situation.
“I’ve talked to many more students about fear (since the incident),” she explained. “I want them to understand safety. We’re all in favor of understanding situational awareness. Don’t walk with your headphones. Look around you; look at people in the eyes.”
The way there are spikes at the office, there may be spikes at universities, she said.
When UTRGV’s inaugural safety statistics are released in October, Jones expects much higher numbers than the legacy schools had combined. More reports, she emphasized, do not mean the school is having a sudden epidemic.
“When you do more projects … you should have spikes in numbers. I think when you see our numbers for our first year at UTRGV, our numbers are going to be a lot higher,” she said. “That doesn’t mean there are more incidents. It means we’re doing a good job at reaching out to victims and survivors. The numbers are going to look like they are going up because people are reporting.”
The projects she referred to include UTRGV’s “Superhero Project,” a bystander training initiative that began in September. It teaches students how to be an “active” bystander and provide assistance or report when they spot someone in an unsafe situation.
Douglas Stoves, associate dean for the university’s Student Rights and Responsibilities office, said this voluntary program and several others are meant to give students more avenues to report assaults and such incidents. So far, he said, the bystander training is working.
“We know the Superhero Project has had a positive effect,” Stoves said. “We’ve had several cases referred to us by an active bystander. It’s really encouraging to see our students getting involved and watching out for one another.”
Jones said bystanders make up at least 20 percent of her office’s visitors.
UTRGV student Elizabeth Barham, 47, said the close-knit community at the university fosters that helpful witness mentality.
“I think that there’s a lot of love here and people are concerned about one another, and everyone looks out for one another,” the biology major said.
The University of Texas System introduced its own methods last fall for dealing with sexual assault throughout all 14 of its schools via the police force. Officers were trained to understand a victim’s mental state and account for the factors that affect those cases, encouraging students to come forward and have more confidence in officers’ abilities.
Stoves said the short-term goal for Student Rights and Responsibilities is to increase the amount of reports. Its long-term goal is to eliminate sexual assaults on campus altogether. He hopes the 2014 decreases are a good sign.
“Hopefully, this is an indicator for how things are heading, and it’s not a dip in the cycle,” he said, referring to a cycle of highs and lows in reports. “Hopefully we’re making those positive changes.”