How BYU handles sexual assault investigations is the subject of a media firestorm that is fueling interest in an online petition calling for change.
How police information beyond the scope of a public police report reached BYU officials has made the situation even more complex.
The issue first blew up during a rape awareness conference hosted by the BYU Women’s Studies Honor Society on April 7. At the event, BYU Sophomore Madi Barney asked Sarah Westerberg, the school’s Title IX coordinator and associate dean of students, why the university’s Honor Code office was investigating Barney after learning she was the victim of a sexual assault.
“We may not want to get involved, but BYU, we have an Honor Code, and we don’t apologize for that,” Westerberg said. The comment drew strong audience reaction. News stories, blog posts and social media commenters took Westerberg’s remark to mean there was a direct tie between a sexual assault report and an investigation by the Honor Code Office, which can censure or even expel students if it finds violations.
The event’s student organizers quickly ended the meeting, and Barney later launched an online petition, which carries this introduction:
“I was raped, and I waited four days to report because I was so terrified about my standing at BYU. Brigham Young University has a strict honor code that prohibits actions such as premarital sex, alcohol or drug use, and even being in the bedroom of someone of the opposite sex. I am a survivor of rape, and now BYU has put my academic future on hold due to their allegations that I broke the Honor Code in the circumstances of my assault. I want victims of sexual violence at BYU to have an immunity clause from the Honor Code so that they don’t feel afraid to report.”
“Without an immunity clause, BYU will continue to be a hostile environment for rape victims, and that emboldens offenders and shames victims,” Barney says on her petition, which had nearly 18,000 signatures Thursday evening.
Barney said she created the petition with the hope BYU would hire a victims’ advocate and alter its Honor Code to better support sexual assault victims. “I’m just hoping that they add some sort of immunity clause to the Honor Code, just so that victims don’t feel afraid to report,” she told The Daily Universe. “And so that when they report, like me, they aren’t re-victimized and they aren’t attacked by the school.”
Barney reported a September 2015 attack in her off-campus apartment to the Provo Police Department, and the 39-year-old man accused of raping her was charged with one count of first-degree felony rape in Fourth District Court. The case is not yet resolved and subsequent records in the court docket are now sealed under a dating violence protective order.
Barney said the accused attacker then gave police information to a friend, who then gave it to the BYU Honor Code Office as an act of retaliation.
The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday said that friend as Utah County Deputy Sheriff Edwin Randolph, who along with Nasiru Seidu, the man charged with rape, were charged Feb. 19 in Fourth District Court with retaliation against a witness, victim or informant, a third-degree felony.
The court complaint was signed by Deputy Utah County Attorney Craig Johnson. According to the Tribune, Johnson said he asked BYU to postpone its investigation until after the rape trial, but BYU declined.
The Utah County Attorney’s office issued a statement later on Friday countering the statement attributed to Johnson. “Referring to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune this morning, we want to clarify that BYU has not interfered with the prosecution of, nor has it acted unlawfully with respect to the pending sexual assault case. BYU has not in any manner impaired the ability of the Utah County Attorney’s Office to seek justice for the victim of the case.”
Randolph also weighed in, through an attorney, with a statement that says: “The media has reported that Deputy Randolph is a friend of the alleged perpetrator in the rape case. This is false. There has been additional reporting that Deputy Randolph gave a copy of the police file to BYU in an apparent attempt to initiate an honor code investigation into the victim in the rape case. This is also false. Deputy Randolph never intended that BYU take honor code action against the female victim. Rather, he intended that BYU investigate male students, particularly male athletes, who may have victimized women or otherwise violated BYU standards regarding sexual conduct. Utah County attorney Jeff Buhman properly dismissed witness retaliation charges once he was in possession of all the facts and Deputy Randolph’s intent was made clear.”
Randolph’s statement does not elaborate on his intended course of action regarding BYU athletes.
U.S. universities are required to have a Title IX office to help victims deal with claims of sexual discrimination or sexual violence among or toward students. The law states that schools must ensure that a victim can continue their education free of sexual violence, and that the school cannot retaliate against someone filing a complaint.
Barney said the Honor Code Office passed the police file along to the Title IX Office, which decided to proceed with an Honor Code investigation.
BYU is not commenting on specifics of this case, but spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said Title IX investigations and Honor Code investigations are conducted separately.
“The victim of a sexual assault will never be referred to the Honor Code Office for being a victim of sexual assault,” Jenkins said in an email. “A report of sexual assault would be referred to the BYU Title IX Office — not to the Honor Code Office. A Title IX investigation at BYU is separate from the Honor Code process. The purpose of the Title IX investigation is to investigate the sexual assault, not other Honor Code violations.”
Jenkins said the university does not take reports of sexual assault lightly. “Our goal in every situation is to give students the support that they need and safeguard their educational environment,” she said. “When a student reports a sexual assault, they are referred to the Title IX Office. The student then has the option to meet with a coordinator, is provided written information about their rights and options and is offered resources and services based on their unique situation. BYU takes these reports extremely seriously, with our first priority being the welfare and safety of the student.”
Jenkins said qualified individuals conduct Title IX investigations. Investigators from that office are trained on issues related to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, she said.
About 23 percent of female undergraduates across the United States are victims of unwanted sexual contact of some kind during their college years, according to a survey of 27 universities. Sexual misconduct can range from unwanted kissing to rape, and victims often do not report sexual assault crimes.
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