Dozens of protesters gathered Wednesday near the BYU campus in response to the university’s current process in dealing with sexual assault victims. Following the gathering, they delivered a petition bearing 60,000 names to the Abraham O. Smoot Administration Building, asking for an Honor Code immunity clause for victims of sexual assault.
Protesters met at noon on the corner of Canyon Road and Bulldog Boulevard, lining the sidewalk with signs and teal armbands, as teal is the color of sexual assault awareness. Local media accounts of current and former BYU students who have felt “re-victimized” when attempting to get help through the university by reporting a sexual assault have fueled the petition drive online for the past week.
The organized protest received significant support online, but Wednesday’s event had about as many reporters and camera crews as protesters.
BYU sophomore Madi Barney is the plaintiff in a rape case in Fourth District Court and has spoken openly about being assaulted. She is also under investigation by BYU’s Honor Code Office. She started the online petition through Care2 last week. She is asking for an immunity clause to be made part of BYU’s Honor Code to prevent rape victims from feeling afraid to report an assault at BYU. The petition now has over 92,000 signatures online.
Barney did not attend the protest because she “feared for her safety,” according to Kelsey Bourgeois, a Care2 campaign writer and former BYU student. Bourgeois helped promote Barney’s petition and flew in from out of state to lead the protest.
Bourgeois said she was a victim of sexual assault, and asked protesters to raise their hands if they had experienced victim shaming. A large number of the crowd, along with two female political candidates, raised their hands. The candidates also spoke at the protest.
Rachel Nelson, a candidate for District 59 in the Utah House of Representatives, asked for adaptations to BYU’s Honor Code. Nelson did not attend BYU, but grew up in Provo.
“BYU administration needs to, and must, adapt their Honor Code,” Nelson said. “These women deserve amnesty and protection from those who they turn to. It cannot be ignored.”
Brooke Swallow-Fenton, a candidate for District 60 in the Utah House of Representatives, also grew up in the valley. She worked for the past year and a half with Utah Valley University administration with the goal of making its campus a safer place for rape survivors.
“Because of this experience, I know that BYU can do the same thing,” Swallow-Fenton said. Swallow-Fenton was an intern last summer for UVU’s Title IX coordinator and presented in-person Title IX training about options available for reporting or not reporting sexual assault cases as part of her job.
Following the speakers, Bourgeois led a single-file trek of supporters from the edge of campus to the administration building. President Kevin J Worthen was out of the office, but Academic Vice President Brent Webb accepted the petition.
“(President Worthen has) indicated a clear willingness, more than a willingness — a commitment — to study this issue carefully and welcomes input both from within the university and outside,” Webb said, referring to a video posted on YouTube Wednesday morning before the protest. It shows the university president speaking with university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins about his determination to make the victim reporting process at BYU more focused on assisting students. Several women have complained that the current process places more emphasis on potential honor code violations than it does on protecting and assisting them.
Some women have said the university’s Title IX office shares victim information with the Honor Code office without their permission, and cuts them out of the investigative process.
Bourgeois urged BYU administration “to create an amnesty clause (in the Honor Code) so that survivors feel like they can come forward and be really protected by BYU’s Title IX office as it’s intended.” She said she was glad administration accepted the petition and will follow up on the situation.
“We definitely still feel it’s not enough,” Bourgeois said. “A commitment to study this is great, but it’s not really an actionable item.”
Lise Ramsay, a BYU sophomore studying English, said at the protest she upholds the Honor Code but doesn’t like how it’s being carried out in these situations.
“I think it is something that keeps us safe as students,” Ramsay said. “It keeps us healthy, it keeps us focused on academics, but I do think that when it’s implemented in this way, it can be very harmful and it’s very unsafe for students to be on campus.”
Ramsay said victims’ safety should be prioritized and nothing should get in the way of them speaking out.
“I think we should prioritize that over any of sort of Honor Code punishment because silencing victims allows rapists to remain on campus, it allows them to repeat the act, and it endangers the safety of thousands of students, and that’s just something that I am not OK with,” Ramsay said.