SALT LAKE CITY » Students at Brigham Young University who report sexual assault will no longer be investigated for possible violations of the strict honor code that bans drinking and premarital sex, the Mormon-owned school announced today in a major reversal to a practice that drew widespread scrutiny.
The college accepted several recommendations made by a faculty council that reviewed how sexual assault cases are handled. The inquiry began in May after female students and alumni spoke out against the school opening honor code investigations of students who report abuses.
Victims advocates said the practice discourages reporting of sexual violence, which is already underreported on campuses nationwide.
Two former BYU students who went public with their experiences said they are mostly pleased with the upcoming changes at the school, where students must agree to an honor code forbidding premarital sex, drug use and drinking.
“By having an amnesty clause, we hopefully will let them know that they should not hold any self-blame, that we are here to provide help to them,” said Julie Valentine, a nursing professor who was on the council issuing the recommendations. “It also helps educate the whole community and the campus that we can’t have victim blaming, that we need to reach out and offer support.”
The school remains under investigation by federal and state officials.
A former BYU-Hawaii student filed a lawsuit against the school on Sept. 30 in Honolulu. The suit claimed the Mormon-owned school’s rules banning unmarried students from sexual activity made the victim feel like she could not report her assault.
U.S. education officials are looking at how BYU handles sexual assault reports. Utah’s Department of Public Safety, meanwhile, is investigating whether university police officers inappropriately shared information on sexual assault cases with the honor code office.
The faculty council didn’t look into the police allegations but found that the federal Title IX office on campus sometimes shared victims’ names and details of their assaults with the honor code office after the investigations were complete, Valentine said.
The only information that can be shared now is about a perpetrator who is found to be guilty of sexual assault, she said. In those cases, the victim’s name will be redacted so only the suspect faces honor code discipline.
The school also will hire a victim advocate to provide confidential counseling for victims who want to discuss their options, Valentine said. Students previously were given a handout explaining their options but didn’t have somebody to talk to, she said.
The school will replace a part-time Title IX coordinator with a full-time coordinator. The Title IX office will be moved to a different area of campus far from the honor code office.
Students were informed of the findings and changes today in an email from BYU President Keven Worthen, Valentine said.
Madeline MacDonald, 20, came forward after she said she was investigated by the honor code office following her report of being sexually assaulted on a 2014 date. Though she was cleared, the two-month review made her feel like a target rather than a victim.
“Within the bounds of how BYU already works, they’ve made a lot of amazing changes,” MacDonald said about the school’s recommendations. “But we’re not done.”
The report on the investigation’s findings didn’t address the way Mormon bishops handle students telling them about sexual assault. MacDonald said that’s a key issue because bishops determine whether students are in good standing with the faith and therefore the university.
The report acknowledges that students said they had “varied” experiences reporting sexual assaults to local church leaders. It says the university doesn’t control that but will share the concerns with church officials.
Madi Barney, another former student who spoke out, said in a statement that she’s encouraged but hopes BYU ensures the changes are implemented and provides a way for students to lodge complaints.
Barney said she was sexually assaulted and then told that she faced an honor code investigation after she reported it to police.
“Treating sexual assault like the heinous crime it is, and treating its victims with respect, is something that BYU should take very seriously — and it looks like they currently are,” Barney said.
The Associated Press doesn’t normally identify victims of sex crimes, but Barney and MacDonald say they want their names to be used to change policy.
Valentine said the decision for victims to come forward “put everything in a pressure cooker” and triggered an important discussion that led to the changes.
“Our hearts go out to all of these victims. I met with many of them, and it is really heartbreaking,” Valentine said. “We wish them healing and the best as they recover.”