'Violated' co-author Paula Lavigne hopes to give voices to Baylor's voiceless

Baylor University

"Violated," the book I co-wrote with ESPN senior writer Mark Schlabach, is heavy with the voices of women who went to Baylor, ones who describe alleged sexual and physical assaults and the mental anguish they say followed.

But I wish readers could actually hear their voices the way we did.

In interview after interview, it was the tone of those conversations that stuck with me. I recall one woman in particular who spoke to me for three hours, taking me through her entire time at Baylor, including describing some incredibly graphic moments from when she said she was raped. She didn't tell police or school officials at the time what she said happened. But here's a description from the book of the toll it took on her over the next several months and years:

She wouldn't sleep for two or three days at a time. She felt stressed and anxious. She ended leaving Baylor for another stint in 2014, and temporarily enrolled at a different private, religious college in Texas in the spring, which is when she had her worst breakdown. 

It was such a personal, harrowing and painful account, but she delivered it so matter-of-factly, as if she were recounting a political science exam. In her level, measured voice, it seemed at times as if she were talking about something that happened to someone else. Curious, I did some research and found out that demeanor is pretty common among women recounting abuse and assault, that it's a way to separate themselves from what they say happened to them and to keep from really processing the impact it had.

But it certainly had an impact. This was a time in these women's lives when they should have been having fun, making friends, pursuing their dreams and seizing all the opportunities that college affords. A walk on campus used to give them a sense of freedom and future. Instead, it seemed more like a prison.

Clearly, there are people who accuse these women of lying or who don't characterize what they said happened as rape or sexual assault. There are, indeed, two sides to the actual incidents in question. But it's clear in many cases that these women would suffer emotionally in the weeks, months and years that followed their reported assaults.

Many would be diagnosed with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. They could no longer focus on their classes. Some would drop out. Others would dial back their goals and ambitions just so they could finish and get out. They took medication. They went to therapy. Anyone who has ever struggled with anxiety can understand how trying to do something that requires as much focus and mental clarity as studying, doing homework, making deadlines and taking exams can be nearly impossible on a sustained basis. And don't forget that we're talking about people barely out of high school, who likely haven't developed the coping skills to deal with such a traumatic event.

Their story is now a story of loss. And it's no wonder that when these women talk about their time at Baylor, they might want to distance themselves from what they left behind. But it's not just their loss. I think it's society's loss, as well.

While some of these women will go -- and have gone -- on to accomplish great things and move on with their lives, it's sad to think that their paths have changed. That they might not reach their full potential or reach it later than they had hoped. That the mental toll might get in the way of relationships and even friendships and have an impact on their relatives, friends and future partners or spouses.

When I get together with my former college classmates or simply just meet up with fellow alumni, I can reminisce about quirky professors, late nights in the student union finishing the campus newspaper and Saturday afternoons before football games. The worst thing that ever happened to me at a college party was a broken tooth. But for years to come, when these women are casually chatting with someone about where they went to college, they're going to flash back to rape kits, interviews with police detectives and how they sought to find the right anxiety medication.

When I think of loss, I also think of the accused. I do think of the young men in these stories. Some of them are the first of their family to go to college, often leaving impoverished, high-crime neighborhoods. Some of these men have faced consequences, whether through the criminal justice system or the university, and there are those who of course debate whether that punishment is fair. Every case and person is unique, and it's unknown what, if anything, could have prevented what happened.

But as I've reported on this issue at Baylor and elsewhere, I can't help but wonder if perhaps a coach, professor or some other role model in these young men's lives could have done or said something that would have changed their behavior or encouraged them to avoid situations where something like this could happen. And what might've happened if those same leaders, especially the coaches, who are often seen as father figures to their young players, would have jumped in at the first accusation -- no matter how minor -- of criminal activity or other wrongdoing, especially acts involving women, and reiterated those warnings and consequences? It's far better for them, for their families and for their community if these young men grow up to be respectful, law-abiding contributors to society, whether as a player in the NFL or as a software engineer.

If coaches have a check-the-box mentality when it comes to completing sexual violence awareness training or if they bring in -- as many programs have -- defense attorneys to talk to student-athletes about what to do when they get in trouble (or if they do as Minnesota did and list "date rape/gang rape" as one of the many "pitfalls" around college athletics in the same random list as gambling and using a fake ID), they're not going to get the buy-in they need. 

In May -- just about one year after Baylor fired football coach Art Briles -- my co-author and colleague Mark Schlabach and I had a refreshingly candid conversation with Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades and new football coach Matt Rhule, who said he was committed to this type of awareness.

"It's not just about how we interact with women," Rhule told us. "It's about getting into fights and our core behaviors. It's a reminder about being a man. At the end of the day, it's hoping that if someone starts to have too much to drink or someone sees a teammate beginning to engage in risky behavior, let's back away from that risky behavior."

One of the former Baylor football players we interviewed for the book said that simply hearing from the school's now-former Title IX coordinator that a woman can't consent if she's drunk "spooked a lot of guys."

People often ask us if we think Baylor has changed. We know the school has made some tangible improvements, adding more training and counselors, and there are many new faces, including Rhule, Rhoades and president Linda Livingstone. Policies, procedures and personnel are a good start, but they are just the first steps in changing a culture, and it's too soon to tell whether that has been achieved.

It's also hard to measure. Will success be reflected in the number of reported assaults? A survey of sexual violence complainants? Completed compliance training? Maybe it's something as simple as one off-campus party this fall where a group of male students start to head into a bedroom with a woman so drunk she can barely stand up and one of their friends steps in front of the door and says, "Hey, guys, back off."

Whatever it is, we hope our book is part of it. One barrier for Baylor and other schools has been a lack of transparency when it comes to these incidents. We've tried to shed some light on what happened to provide accountability and awareness. The voiceless now have a voice, and it's one everyone should hear.

"Violated: Exposing Rape at Baylor University amid College Football's Sexual Assault Crisis," by Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach, was released today.

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