Texas Rangers to investigate Baylor handling of sex assaults

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Texas' top law enforcement agency has opened a preliminary investigation into Baylor University and how it handled reports of sexual and physical assault over several years.

The Texas Rangers confirmed Wednesday they are working with the McLennan County prosecutor's office to ''determine if further action is warranted.''

A group of state lawmakers had called Tuesday for the Rangers to investigate Baylor, which faces several federal lawsuits from women who say the school ignored or mishandled their reports of assault for years.

Baylor officials say an internal investigation found at least 17 women who reported being sexually assaulted by 19 football players in recent years, although one lawsuit puts the number at more than 50 women.

The statement from the Texas Rangers didn't say if the agency was looking at specific cases or current or former school employees and students.

''Baylor University pledges to extend our full cooperation with the Texas Rangers surrounding the issue of sexual assaults that occurred within our campus community several years ago, as we have done with other external inquiries that are currently underway,'' the school said in a statement.

Baylor fired former football coach Art Briles in 2016 and demoted former President and Chancellor Ken Starr, who later resigned. Former athletic director Ian McCaw also resigned and is now at Liberty University in Virginia.

Briles sympathizes with anyone who was a victim of assault and would welcome a chance to speak with the Texas Rangers, said his attorney Mark Lanier.

''If this is an honest and thorough investigation it can only be good and useful,'' Lanier said. ''Anybody who was responsible should be held accountable.''

Lanier said Briles has not been contacted by the Rangers.

The nation's largest Baptist University has been engulfed in the scandal since 2015 when football player Sam Ukwuachu was convicted of sexually assaulting a Baylor student. Media coverage of that case and the 2014 sexual assault conviction of former football player Tevin Elliott led the school to hire Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton to investigate how the university and the football program handled reports of assault.

The law firm reported to school regents that it found years of mishandled cases and that the football program operated as if it was ''above the rules'' as coaches and staff failed to report allegations and even interfered with some witnesses and investigations.

A litany of legal action followed. Baylor faces at least six lawsuits from women who say the school ignored them or bullied them into silence, and that the campus and football program fostered a culture of sexual violence. The school had already settled with at least two other women before they filed a lawsuit.

Baylor also faces a federal civil rights investigation and a probe by the NCAA.

Alex Zalkin, the attorney for Jasmin Hernandez, one of Elliott's victims who is suing Baylor, welcomed a Rangers criminal investigation.

The Associated Press generally doesn't identify sexual assault victims, but Hernandez has spoken publicly to draw attention to the case.

''We're both after the same thing: We want to know the truth of what went on at Baylor,'' Zalkin said.

To date, only two of Briles' former players have been tried and convicted of sexual assault, and another is currently charged in a 2016 assault.

Baylor officials have tried to emphasize changes they are already making to improve response to sexual violence, spending more than $4 million in recent years on federal Title IX response services. The school also says it has adopted most of the recommendations presented by the law firm it hired to investigate itself.

Baylor this week said football player Travon Blanchard had been suspended after a woman's request for a protective order against him had been granted by a court. She has accused him of multiple acts of violence and threats against her dating back to last year.

And last month, new football coach Matt Rhule fired an assistant strength and conditioning coach who had been arrested in a prostitution sting.

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