BYU studying sexual assaults reporting, investigation policies

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BYU Academic Vice President Brent Webb accepts 60,000 signatures at a protest held on campus on April 20. (Natalie Stoker)

BYU is studying its sexual assault policies following a student’s complaint about the way the university is handling her assault case.

The heart of the issue is the interaction between the campus’ Title IX office, its Honor Code office, and the way they investigate sexual assault cases. Sophomore Madi Barney initiated a media firestorm when she questioned why the Honor Code office had frozen her student registration after it learned she was the plaintiff in a rape case in Fourth District Court. She has since been named in almost daily news reports that have kept pressure on the university.

BYU President Kevin J Worthen released a video on April 20 where he said the university will be investigating its policies.

“That study really is to help us determine how we can best use those tools we have, the Title IX process and the Honor Code process together,” Worthen says in the video. “So we’ll look at things like the structural organization within the university, about whether and how information is shared and under what conditions, and also the relationship between the Title IX office and the Honor Code Office. We’re not perfect, we don’t claim to be perfect, we can be better. This is important enough that we owe it to the community to say, ‘This is the very best that we can do, and we’ve thought it through and we’ve studied it through and here’s the changes that we’re going to make.'”

Barney made her initial public complaint during a conference held by the Women’s Studies Honor Society on April 7. She asked Title IX coordinator Sarah Westerberg, who is also associate dean of students, why the university’s Honor Code office was investigating after learning Barney 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.

Barney then launched an online petition through petition website Care2, requesting an immunity clause from the Honor Code for victims of sexual violence at BYU.

A protestor holds signs at the protest held at BYU on April 20. A petition with over 100,000 signatures was started by BYU sophomore Madi Barney. (Natalie Stoker)

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.”

After other sexual assault survivors came forward through different press outlets, BYU released a response to the inquiries on April 18.

“We understand the concerns that have been expressed about the reporting of sexual assaults to our Title IX Office, and we care deeply about the safety of our students,” says BYU’s press release. “We have decided to study these issues, including potential structural changes within the university, the process for determining whether and how information is used, and the relationship between the Title IX Office and the Honor Code Office.”

On April 20, protestors gathered on campus to march to BYU’s administration building to deliver 60,000 signatures from a Barney’s petition asking for change. After delivering the signatures to BYU Academic Vice President Brent Webb, Kelsey Bourgeois, Care2 protest writer and representative for Barney’s petition, told Webb they would be following up daily to insure that changes are made to BYU’s procedures.

The university has not detailed its review process or given a timeline for its study.

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