Leer en español: BYU y #MeToo: ¿Cómo el clima ha mejorado en el campus?
Editor’s note: During Winter Semester 2020, journalism students examined several societal issues that directly impact the BYU community because “The world is our campus.” This story is part of a series called “The World Meets Our Campus.”
Most of Lisa Leavitt’s appointments with students begin with a simple question: “Are you safe?”
Leavitt, BYU’s sexual assault survivor advocate, said her job is to talk to victims and inform them about the different resources available to them. She said after ensuring a victim’s safety and assessing their medical needs, the next thing students usually want to talk about is academics.
“It’s interesting to me. You’ve got someone who’s just been raped or sexually assaulted and they’re hugely traumatized and one of their biggest concerns is, ‘How am I going to go to school?’” Leavitt said.
The issue of sexual assault affecting academics on BYU campus was recently brought to the forefront when sexual abuse charges were made against former BYU professor Michael James Clay by a female student in his program. According to the charging documents, he met regularly with the student in his office, and she saw him as a sort of therapist and mentor. Clay has not been tried or convicted.
Leavitt was hired as a result of a study the university conducted in 2016 about the treatment of sexual assault survivors on campus. The study was conducted in response to public criticism regarding the way sexual assault cases were handled in relation to the Honor Code.
Julie Valentine, a nursing professor who specializes in sexual assault and interpersonal violence, was a member of the advisory council that performed the study. She said there was a lot of push from President Kevin J Worthen to go beyond just fulfilling federal requirements and make sure the resulting changes did what was best for the students.
“I was very grateful for the support of President Worthen. He truly loves every student, and his focus was to make changes to help BYU be the safest and healthiest environment for students so that they could grow and learn,” Valentine said.
She said she was glad the university was responding to the claims because she felt at the time that sexual assault and interpersonal violence weren’t talked about enough at BYU and knew that needed to change.
“When I first started trying to enact change and talk to more people about the high incidents of sexual assault, it really felt like banging my head against a brick wall,” Valentine said.
The advisory council suggested 23 changes for the university to implement, all of which were accepted and later announced in an advisory council report released in October 2016. One of those changes was to hire Leavitt as a resource for students, faculty and staff.
Leavitt said since then she’s seen a lot of changes, not only in the culture at BYU but in the ability students have to access help.
“Five years ago, we didn’t even talk about sexual assault on campus. And now, we talk about it, we have sexual assault awareness month, we do all kinds of presentations throughout the year. I present, the police present and Title IX (officials) all present during the new student orientation. Education about it has changed phenomenally.”
According to Valentine, this sort of education is what will eventually help decrease instances of sexual assault, not only at BYU but on a national and global level. She said people have to trust the system in order to feel comfortable reporting, and if people don’t report, “then sexual assault and interpersonal violence exist in the darkness.”
Valentine said while there has been a lot of improvement in the past few years, there is still more that needs to change. She said she especially worries about the more vulnerable individuals in society — those who may avoid reporting because they fear repercussions in their workplaces or other aspects of their lives.
Leavitt agreed the culture surrounding sexual assault could still stand to improve within society at large.
“We have made rape and sexual assault a woman’s problem, and it is not. It’s a societal problem, and if anything it’s a man’s problem,” Leavitt said.
Leavitt also said the culture at BYU doesn’t help much because many students are naive about sex in general and have a tendency to self-blame in sexual assault situations.
One victim, who asked not to be named, shared with the Daily Universe her story of overcoming that sense of self-blame after she was sexually assaulted right before starting school at BYU.
“I’m just thankful for all of the resources that I have and the people who are able to help me,” she said.
In the audio clip below she shares her story and explains how the faith she gained from being raised a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helped her to feel supported even when she didn’t feel like she could talk about her struggles with those around her.
According to Leavitt, almost all of the sexual assaults that happen to BYU students happen off campus. The Daily Universe submitted an information request to the Provo Police Department asking how many sexual assaults had taken place at each of the off-campus housing areas listed in the BYU housing guide during 2018 and 2019. The police department produced a list of only four incidents — two sexual assaults and two sexual misconduct charges — which had all taken place at the Village at South Campus.
Leavitt said, however, that this list does not accurately represent where and how many assaults happen off-campus. She said the lack of incidents listed could come from a number of reasons, including the fact that many victims choose not to report to the police. Leavitt also said many of those who do decide to report go through the BYU campus police. She also said these incidents don’t always happen in someone’s apartment but can take place anywhere, like at a park or in a car.
Overall, Leavitt said she’s impressed by the students she meets in her job.
“I am constantly amazed by their resilience, by their determination to get over this. It constantly blows my mind how amazing our student population is,” Leavitt said.