Coverage of Campus Sexual Assault at BYU

Honor Code amnesty is just one part of BYU’s 23 steps for addressing sexual assault

By Jessica Miller, Matthew Piper and Erin Alberty, Originally published by The Salt Lake Tribune on October 16, 2016

Brigham Young University announced sweeping changes Wednesday in how it will respond to students who report sexual assault, saying it will restructure the school's Title IX Office and grant amnesty to victims who disclose Honor Code violations.

The scope of the changes came as a relief to students and others who had argued that victims were silenced and harmed by the school's approach — which they felt emphasized investigating whether a victim was telling the truth or had broken school rules before an assault, rather than offering support.

University officials said they will follow 23 recommendations from an internal advisory council, which addressed similar criticisms and called for changes in what victims experience when they report to the school.

No staff from the Honor Code Office, which investigates student conduct, will be located in the same office as Title IX workers, who provide services to victims of sexual violence. Creating a new physical space to separate the offices is one of five recommendations being adopted immediately.

Title IX staff will be charged with ensuring that information they receive from alleged victims will not be shared with the Honor Code Office without their consent. And students who report sexual assaults will no longer face having their conduct at the time questioned for possible Honor Code violations.

Scrutiny of BYU's policies began in April, when then-student Madi Barney spoke out at a campus rape awareness conference about how Title IX personnel treated students who reported sexual assaults. She later launched an online petition for the university to adopt an amnesty policy and allow victims of sexual assault to report crimes without fear of school discipline.

"I am very happy with the results of the study, and I'm even happier that BYU has agreed to implement all 23 of the study's recommendations," Barney said Wednesday. "I am encouraged that BYU has said that these policies are living, growing and ongoing. I want BYU, and the community, to continue to look for ways we can help and support survivors."

Brigham Young University’s Academic Vice President, Brent Webb, left, accepts a petition with 60,000 signatures that criticized the school’s treatment of sexual-assault victims. Then-student Madi Barney, not pictured, started the petition to call for an Honor Code amnesty provision. The petition was eventually signed by more than 117,000. 

Kelsey Bourgeois, who organized an April demonstration to deliver Barney's petition to campus administrators and has said she was raped while attending BYU, said she was "thrilled" by the changes.

"I even cried a little bit," she said. "I was so happy."

More than 50 people have told The Salt Lake Tribune they were sexually assaulted while attending BYU. A majority said they did not report the assaults, most of them citing fears that they would be disciplined for Honor Code violations. In several cases, students said their assailants explicitly raised the threat of school discipline to prevent reports.

A dozen current and former students interviewed by The Tribune said they were investigated for Honor Code violations in connection with sexual abuses against them. Students said school officials probed their conduct, reviewing curfew violations, what they were wearing, and even their communications with others about the Honor Code process — although the students had said they had not consented to sex.

The Honor Code at BYU, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, forbids alcohol and coffee, restricts contact between male and female students, imposes a strict dress code, and bans expressions of romantic affection between people of the same gender.

BYU said in a statement that a new amnesty clause will not become policy until it is reviewed by the Student, Faculty and Administrative Advisory Councils, but the university will start giving that protection to victims now.

President Kevin Worthen announced the changes in an email sent to students, staff and faculty Wednesday morning, saying victims of sexual assault "have been through a devastating experience, and they are looking for our help and support. We have an obligation not only to provide that support, both emotionally and spiritually, but also to create an environment where sexual assault is eliminated.

"We do not have all the answers to this problem, which is a nationwide issue affecting all colleges and universities," Worthen wrote. "But this report provides an excellent framework on which to build."

'Lack of sensitivity'

The advisory council, formed by BYU in May, outlined a number of problems it uncovered during its months of research, many stemming from overlap in the Honor Code and Title IX offices.

There is confusion about how to report a sexual assault, whom to report to and what resources are offered on campus, students told the council.

Until 2013, Title IX personnel were housed within the Honor Code Office. Today, the Title IX coordinator's office is next to the associate dean who oversees Honor Code investigations, with a Title IX investigator housed in the same suite.

The two offices also use the same tracking system for casework, and though a "firewall" was created to separate the investigations, "some Honor Code cases were mislabeled as Title IX cases," the group found.

In recent years, as the role of Title IX has grown at BYU, employees from departments such as athletics and the university police were working in the Title IX Office, as well as in their original positions. And Honor Code Office staff had been asked to investigate Title IX reports as well as Honor Code cases.

The report acknowledges that some employees may have brought "biases, attitudes ... and assumptions" to Title IX duties that may have resulted in a "lack of sensitivity" when looking into sexual assault reports.

At the April forum on rape awareness where Barney spoke out, then-Title IX coordinator Sarah Westerberg said her office would "not apologize" for addressing Honor Code violations, even though she acknowledged a "chilling" effect on sex crime reporting, according to several students who attended the event.

Student Life Vice President Janet Scharman, a member of the study group, said Westerberg will no longer be the Title IX coordinator. Instead, she will continue to serve as associate dean of students, while a new full-time coordinator will oversee the Title IX Office.

Two current full-time Title IX investigators will continue in their roles, Scharman said.

The advisory council recommends that the school "make it as clear as we possibly can that if there has been a sexual assault, that the place to go is to report it to the Title IX Office."

Council member Julie Valentine, a BYU nursing professor whose research focuses on sexual assault, said the group found that while some victims reported that their ecclesiastical leaders — upon whom Mormon students rely for an endorsement to remain enrolled — had been among the most helpful, "we also heard the opposite." Victims reported the same inconsistencies from law enforcement, prosecutors and other segments of society, she noted.

"We need to have these discussions at all levels of society and all levels of our church," she said.

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins wrote in an email: "We haven't yet received those findings, but look forward to doing so. Information of this nature has been helpful in the past to inform training for local leaders."

Dueling priorities

Splitting up the Honor Code and Title IX Offices, adopting an amnesty policy and adding an on-campus victim advocate — another recommendation being implemented immediately — will be huge benefits to students, said Kortney Hughes, victims' services program coordinator for the Provo Police Department.

"We knew they would do the right thing, that there would be positive changes," Hughes said. "But this is outstanding … I really think this is a step in the right direction, and it will start earning that trust back from students and the victims."

Former Brigham Young University student Madeline MacDonald joined Madi Barney and other students in criticizing BYU’s approach to students who report sexual assaults. Now a student at the University of Utah, MacDonald said she was “encouraged” by BYU’s October announcement of reforms. 

Madeline MacDonald, a former student who said she was investigated by the Honor Code Office after she reported sexual violence, said she was "really encouraged" by the recommendations, including the amnesty clause. But the admission that information was shared between the Title IX and Honor Code offices was alarming, she said.

MacDonald also said she was concerned that the report did not suggest new training or guidelines for bishops who may work with BYU students. The report recommends only that the council's findings "regarding ecclesiastical leaders' varied responses to sexual-assault reports" be shared with the LDS Church.

"The fact that bishops have complete [control over an endorsement], it should be under university control in some way," she said. "Either stop bishops from doing this or give them all intense training."

Barney also said there's still work to be done.

"I want there to be a system in place to make sure that the policies are properly implemented," she said. "And that there is a way for students who are going through the Title IX process to complain, if they feel they need to."

The council's recommendations reflect current best practices in the higher education community, according to S. Daniel Carter, a board member for SurvJustice, which provides legal assistance to victims of sexual violence.

"These are the types of things that institutions across the country, over the last four or five years, have been implementing," Carter said.

But BYU also has a history of investigating and punishing students who report sexual violence, Carter said. The amnesty policy, he said, "goes a very long way to mitigating the chilling effect that fear of reprisal has on survivors."

Scharman said the discussion about adopting an amnesty provision brought "the questions that I think anyone would raise here at BYU: Are we not caring about the Honor Code?"

Ultimately, she said, two factors led to what she described as unanimous support for amnesty: that many sexual assaults go unreported, and a 2002 study that found 60 percent of perpetrators are repeat offenders.

In a draft statement of an amnesty clause, the group wrote that students would not be disciplined for Honor Code violations that occurred "at or near the time of the reported sexual misconduct."

For "other Honor Code violations that are not directly related to the incident but which may be discovered as a result of the investigatory process," BYU will offer "leniency."

Bourgeois said the "leniency" language gave her some unease. BYU student JC Hamilton was likewise unsure what "leniency" means.

"It appears that there could be discipline, but they could be lighter about it," he said. "I think that could possibly be a loophole."

Still, Hamilton said, "I do feel like BYU in good faith is making it very clear that they care more about preventing sexual assault than they do about punishing prior violations."

Amnesty also would be extended to gay and lesbian students reporting sexual assaults, Scharman said.

Andy, a former student who asked to be identified by only his first name, said he felt the changes could have come sooner, but still applauded the school. He was put on "withheld suspension" for a year when he was a 17-year-old freshman, after he said his bishop instructed him to tell Honor Code enforcers about his relationship with a 25-year-old man who, Andy said, raped him while they were dating.

"I feel good that LGBT students who are victims won't be punished for having been in the LGBT situation when the assault happened," he said. "I still don't trust BYU completely. They say they're going to do this. We'll see if they actually do."

Madi Barney cheered news that Brigham Young University students who report sexual assaults no longer face potential punishment if they violated the school’s Honor Code at or near the time of the assault. “That was my goal all along,” Barney said. BYU officials announced in October that they will follow all recommendations made by a study group that reviewed how the school handles reports of sex crime. School officials had blocked Barney from enrolling in classes after she reported a sexual assault to police and refused to participate in an Honor Code investigation of her conduct at the time.

Pending investigations

The university's study is one of several investigations stemming from allegations by BYU students, particularly Barney, about how the school handled their sexual assault complaints.

Barney was a sophomore when she reported to Provo police that she had been raped. A Utah County sheriff's deputy gave her police file to school officials and told them she'd broken the Honor Code.

Prosecutors advised Barney not to cooperate with the school's investigation of her conduct while the criminal rape case was pending, and the school banned her from enrolling in future classes.

Barney also filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, which in August notified BYU it was investigating how the school handled Barney's case. The Provo school is the third in Utah to be added to a list of about 200 colleges facing review under Title IX, the law that forbids sex-based discrimination at all schools that receive federal funding. The University of Utah and Westminster College, a private Salt Lake City liberal arts school, also are under investigation.

Barney's case also has spurred a state investigation into how BYU police access and share law enforcement records. Documents obtained by The Tribune appear to contradict statements by campus police that their department is separate from the Honor Code Office and does not report conduct violations to the school.

BYU's study group met during the summer with outside experts on campus rape and studied sexual assault reporting procedures at more than 80 universities. It also reviewed statements on Barney's petition and 3,200 responses on a feedback website created by the school. The group also included Ben Ogles, the dean of BYU's College of Family, Home and Social Sciences; and Sandra Rogers, the international vice president at BYU and a former dean of BYU's College of Nursing.


Tribune staffers Benjamin Wood and Rachel Piper contributed to this story.