Trinity University students Gabriella Garriga and Arianna Siddiqui comment on campus violence and sexual assault.
Trinity University students Gabriella Garriga and Arianna Siddiqui discuss campus violence and sexual assault. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Universities and colleges have limited answers to the question of how to prevent violence on campus. Bathrooms across campus often bear informational posters telling students how best to report dangerous incidents. New student orientations focus on how to intervene when a friend becomes involved in a violent relationship.

University officials stress that if no one reports such incidents, colleges can’t act to protect students.

The question gained greater import on local college campuses following the death of Cayley Mandadi, a 19-year-old Trinity University student who died from blunt force trauma on Oct. 31. Mandadi’s boyfriend, 22-year-old Mark Howerton, who had allegedly exhibited violent behavior toward her before her death, was charged Feb. 28 in her murder.

Trinity had previously barred Howerton, who was not a student there, from its campus after he reportedly caused damage to the woman’s dorm room, but couldn’t prevent Mandadi from seeing her boyfriend off campus. Sheryl Tynes, the university’s vice president for student life, said the school tries to prevent assault and other violent situations by educating students on the need to report them and providing resources to help them identify dangerous situations.

“Students will say, ‘We don’t want to get this group into trouble,’ and what we convey to them is that if this is the third time or the second time this person has done this to separate people, how can we know unless we have the information?” Tynes asked.

At most colleges and universities, educational programs start during a student’s first few days on campus with orientation, where they receive information and training on myriad topics.

At Trinity’s orientation, Tynes said, students sit through a two-hour session that focuses on alcohol abuse, substance abuse, sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, consent, and sexual exploitation. She compared the deluge of information to drinking out of a firehose.

Freshmen Gabriella Garriga and Arianna Siddiqui can relate, saying the university presents a lot of information in a student’s first few days on campus. One of the lectures was on bystander training, in which students were taught how and when to intervene when they believe a fellow student is in danger.

Looking back, “that one does stand out for obvious reasons,” Garriga said.

Bystander training aims to increase reporting of violent and dangerous incidents and to increase safety on campuses.

Intervention by a friend, roommate, sorority sister, or study partner can make a big difference when a student falls victim to sexual or domestic violence, university officials and students say. Administrators depend on student reports of illegal behavior, since most school officials rarely know what’s happening behind the scenes, and students have more awareness of peers’ problematic relationships.

“As an administrator, I’m not at their functions, I’m not at their parties, I’m not living in the residence halls,” Tynes said.

Residential assistant Saraly Guerrero, 22, who lives on a dormitory floor with Trinity sophomores, encourages any student in a dangerous situation to seek help from the university’s counseling department. She said friends can’t always offer appropriate advice.

“Sometimes, more has to be said,” Guerrero said. “No one is ever prepared for anything that is unexpected.”

Trinity University student Savaly Guerrero comments on campus violence and sexual assault.
Trinity University student Saraly Guerrero is a residential advisor in a dormitory. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Tynes said Trinity tries to emphasize that students can report incidents to many different university authorities, including residential assistants; counseling services, with the latter having licensing requirements that for the most part mandate confidentiality; health services; or the campus chaplain.

“If you think about the Jerry Sandusky kind of history that institutions have, the outrage came from people having the information and not putting all the pieces of the puzzle together,” Tynes said. “But we can’t put the puzzle together if we don’t have all the information.”

Garriga and Siddiqui said that for students, it can also be hard to know when is the right time to report relationship violence or other troubling behavior.

“I don’t know if I would have known what to do in a domestic violence case,” Siddiqui said. “There is a fine line between [a boyfriend] being protective and controlling.”

Siddiqui said she isn’t sure if she would be able to recognize warning signs, either.

A residence hall at Trinity University Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Texas lawmakers drafted a number of bills during the 2017 legislative session to create a clearer reporting pipeline for instances of sexual assault, following a scandal that triggered a raft of lawsuits against Baylor University alleging that its response to sexual assaults violated federal Title IX laws against gender discrimination.

One bill, filed by State Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), would have assigned more reporting responsibility to students aware of sexual harassment, assault, family violence, or stalking.

Had it passed, the bill would have mandated that the highest-ranking member of a student organization report incidents to the university’s chief executive officer within 48 hours of becoming aware of them.

If the student failed to report the incident, he or she could be charged with a Class B or Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison or a $4,000 fine.

“You choose to be the president of a fraternity. … You plan parties, and you have a degree of responsibility if an assault occurs,” Huffman said during a March 2017 committee hearing on the bill. “The intent [of the bill] is to let the institutions know that you are not going to cover this up.”

The bill failed to gain traction during the legislative session and died in committee.

Tynes is skeptical that assigning this kind of liability to a student is the right answer.

“I’m not sure that I would want to put that responsibility on an 18- to 22-year-old,” she said. “I think the best we can do is let [students] know we make it a safe place to convey to them our concerns. If they see something, we want them to say something.”

Universities also seek to make students more comfortable with reporting sexual assaults through an amnesty policy. This policy, mandated by a bill passed in the 2017 legislative session, provides protection to minors who report sexual assault and have been drinking.

Other San Antonio-area university officials say making students feel comfortable enough to report violent incidents, while also creating a strong code of conduct, is a balancing act.

At Our Lady of the Lake University, like other area universities, instructional programming extends throughout the year. Title IX Coordinator Suzanne Patrick said the university recently hosted an event called “In Her Shoes.” Attended by more than 75 people, it allowed individuals to share their experiences with harassment and violence, and discuss the best way to intervene in troubling situations.

“It is incredibly important that individuals who have been subjected to violence, who have experienced violence, have the ability to come forward when they are ready,” St. Mary’s University Dean of Students Tim Bessler told the Rivard Report.

Bessler said this balance is why training student leaders to intervene and provide appropriate resources is so important.

St. Mary’s University does this from a student’s first day on campus, requiring incoming students to enroll and complete a course called, “Think About It.” Bessler said the online course puts students in various role-playing scenarios where they must decide whether or not to intervene.

He said the course helps students to “know what to look out for so they can intervene and stop a situation, remove a friend.”

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.