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Does BYU's Honor Code Punish Sexual Assault Victims?

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AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Protesters stand in solidarity with rape victims on the campus of Brigham Young University during a sexual assault awareness demonstration Wednesday, April 20, 2016, in Provo, Utah. BYU students who say they were sexually assaulted are finding themselves under investigation for possible violations of the Mormon school's honor code against sex and drinking. BYU says it will re-evaluate the practice.

A few weeks ago, the Salt Lake Tribune reported a story that has reverberated around the world.

Students of Brigham Young University who report sexual assault under the provisions of Title IX are often themselves investigated for violations of the school’s Honor Code.

The Honor Code is a lengthy and detailed document that prescribes modes of dress, behavior and adherence to the policies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns BYU. One can violate the Honor Code by, for instance, questioning church doctrine or by drinking alcohol, or having premarital sex.

Students must sign the Honor Code and follow it to maintain academic standing at the university. 

One rape victim told the Tribune she was not allowed to register for classes until she complied with an investigation by the Honor Code Office. However, she has been asked by the Deputy County Attorney not to cooperate with the Honor Code investigation, lest it jeopardize the legal case against her attacker.

Erin Alberty, one of the authors of the series of stories in the Salt Lake Tribune, told KNPR’s State of Nevada that they heard about the issue when that victim, Madi Barney, asked a question to a panel of people at a Rape Awareness Month event on campus. The panel included the school’s Title IX coordinator.

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Alberty said according to the people at the conference the Title IX coordinator said, “We do not apologize for our honor code.” She acknowledged that it would have a “chilling effect on reporting” of sexual assault, but the Honor Code investigations wouldn’t end.

The Honor Code is a major part of campus life at BYU. Students know the rules and are reminded of them often. People often attend BYU because of the honor code.

“They are expecting a wholesome atmosphere," Alberty said. "They want to keep to some of the religious standards of the church.”

Alexis Kennedy is a criminal justice professor at UNLV. She explained that while many people associate Title IX with equality in women’s sports on campus, in reality, the program is being used to bring campuses along that aren’t treating people equally and to change the culture of campuses that often operate like their own “fiefdoms.”

In a statement that was printed in the Tribune, a BYU spokesperson said that the Honor Code violations, even when they’re linked to a sexual assault, will be addressed separately from the assault allegations. However, Kennedy said that is difficult, if not impossible.

“Title IX is designed to make sure everyone feels safe on campus and if an honor code violation investigation makes them feel unsafe, they’re going to be violating Title IX,” she said. “This honor code is it fair? And is it something they can enforce?”

Another sexual assault victim Alberty spoke with said the Honor Code Office told her that victims lie about rape to avoid running afoul of the office. If the sex is consensual, they could be kicked out of school.

Kennedy took issue with the idea that rape victims lie. She said overall the number of false rape allegations is extremely low.

“We’ve always had this traditional script of, ‘Well it didn’t really happen. The victim is lying. The victims are inherently untrustworthy,’” Kennedy said, “We start with a position of distrust and disbelief of almost all victims.”

Kennedy said it is not unusual for a Title IX coordinator to bring up that argument as a “protective measure.”

The Tribune also reported predators using threat of Honor Code reporting to coerce victims into having sex with them.

Alberty pointed to the case of a young man who was extorted by a man named Brad Ray Adams, who had threatened to expose “compromising” pictures he had sent him to the Honor Code Office, if he didn’t give him money and perform sex acts.

Eventually, the victim went to police, who set up a sting. Adams was prosecuted and convicted to 15 days in jail and a fine of $636. The victim - who is still at BYU - refused to participate in the case and the more serious charge of forcible sodomy was dropped.

Alberty said several people she talked with during her investigation agreed that people who aren’t students use the Honor Code against their victims.  

“We had heard from other students that their abusers who are not students, they’re in a better position to use the Honor Code because they can turn somebody in and those allegations may be taken seriously but they don’t have to pay any consequence because they’re not students,” she explained.

BYU has said that student safety is their number one priority. But the school has stopped short of saying it will suspend the Honor Code when there are allegations of sexual assault.

President Worthen talks about improving sexual assault victim response

They are, however, looking into uncoupling the database that serves both the Title IX office and the Honor Code Office.

Kennedy said the Honor Code is a contract that can be changed.

“Maybe what we should be asking BYU is: Why don’t we create a separate category out of the Honor Code related to sexual activity if there is an allegation of sexual assault, even if there some that are false it might be better to protect everybody,” she said. 

That is exactly the question that Madi Barney wanted answered at that rape awareness panel.

From NPR: Brigham Young Students Claim University Punished Rape Victims For Reporting

Guests

Erin Alberty, Reporter, Salt Lake Tribune; Alexis Kennedy, Criminal Justice Professor, UNLV

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