At Brigham Young, a Cost in Reporting a Rape
By Jack Healy
New York Times
April 26, 2016
PROVO, Utah — Before she could move into a dormitory at Brigham Young University or sign up for freshman classes, Brooke had to sign the college’s Honor Code.
Part moral compass and part contract, the Honor Code is a cornerstone of life for the nearly 30,000 students at Brigham Young, a Mormon-run university. It points students, faculty and staff members toward “moral virtues encompassed in the gospel of Jesus Christ,” prizing chastity, honesty and virtue. It requires modest dress on campus, discourages consensual sex outside marriage and, among other things, prohibits drinking, drug use, same-sex intimacy and indecency, as well as sexual misconduct.
But after Brooke, 20, told the university that a fellow student had raped her at his apartment in February 2014, she said the Honor Code became a tool to punish her. She had taken LSD that night, and also told the university about an earlier sexual encounter with the same student that she said had been coerced. Four months after reporting the assault, she received a letter from the associate dean of students.
“You are being suspended from Brigham Young University because of your violation of the Honor Code including continued illegal drug use and consensual sex, effective immediately,” the letter read.
In the past few weeks, Brooke and a handful of other female students have come forward, first at a rape-awareness conference and then in The Salt Lake Tribune, to say that after they made complaints of sexual abuse they had faced Honor Code investigations into whether they drank alcohol, took drugs or had consensual sex.
“They treated me in such an un-Christlike way, like I was some sinner,” said Brooke, who agreed to be identified by her first name. “There was no forgiveness and mercy.”
Their accounts have brought a national debate over colleges’ disparate treatment of women who have reported sexual assaults crashing onto this faith-driven campus, where Mormon students gather from around the globe, skirts must fall to the knee and beards are outlawed. The women’s complaints have focused attention on how the university deals with such cases as it also seeks to uphold a moral code that lies at the heart of its identity.
Brigham Young’s policy on sexual misconduct urges students to come forward even if they have broken university policies. The university says that it investigates sexual assault complaints fully, but that it also has an obligation to pursue misconduct under the Honor Code. According to the sexual misconduct policy, violations of its code discouraging consensual sex are not exempt from scrutiny.
“Brigham Young University cares deeply about the safety of our students,” Carri Jenkins, a university spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “When a student reports a sexual assault, our primary focus is on the well-being of the victim.”
Sometimes, though, “facts come to light that a victim has engaged in prior Honor Code violations,” she said.
While the recent complaints about Brigham Young have come from female students, the university says that all students are required to follow the Honor Code “at all times,” whether on or off campus. Any potential violation that comes to the university’s attention could be investigated, it said. In the wake of the students’ complaints, the university announced last week that it would review how it handled reports of sexual assaults.
The university said it could not discuss specific cases, citing federal privacy laws. Brooke said the university had told her that it was investigating her claim of sexual assault, but she left the university after her suspension. She said she had not pressed criminal charges, though she had been interviewed by the police after fleeing the scene, according to a police report.
Some experts in law and gender issues on college campuses said Brigham Young’s approach was troubling. The cases set off a torrent of online criticism, as well as a protest on campus this month.
The experts said the fear of being investigated, suspended or losing a scholarship could keep students from reporting sexual assaults to the university, potentially letting perpetrators escape campus discipline.
“You’re creating a systemic unwillingness or barrier for victims to come forward and access the resources of the university for fear that they’re going to be punished,” said Brett A. Sokolow, the executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators, named for the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.
Many other colleges, secular and religious, have “amnesty clauses” that protect victims who might worry about getting in trouble for infractions surrounding their attack, like taking drugs or drinking in a dorm room. Last year, Maryland passed a law protecting students who report or witness sexual assaults from being cited for violating drug and alcohol rules.
“All schools, including B.Y.U., know that alcohol and drugs are often involved in sexual violence,” said Adele P. Kimmel, a senior lawyer at Public Justice, a nonprofit that advocates social-justice issues. “If you’re a school that wants to send a message to students that you’re serious about preventing sexual violence, you should have an amnesty policy.”
Madeline MacDonald, a sophomore at Brigham Young studying computer science, did not hesitate to go to the university in December 2014 after what was supposed to be a date with someone she met on Tinder turned into an assault, she said. Ms. MacDonald, who agreed to allow her full name to be published, said the man — not a B.Y.U. student — had driven her to a water tower off campus, undressed, groped her and masturbated against her after she told him “no” several times.
The next day, she said, she went to the university’s Title IX office, which fields sexual assault reports, and gave it a detailed account of what had happened. She has learned that an investigation was opened by the university’s Honor Code office that same day.
“There was a good two weeks where I had no clue what was going on and no one would talk to me,” she said.
Ms. MacDonald said the university had eventually concluded that she had been sexually assaulted and offered support services. Separately, she got a call telling her that she would face no discipline under the Honor Code.
Brigham Young always seemed like the natural path for Ms. MacDonald, who grew up in Seattle. Members of her family are alumni, and they would wake her up singing the university’s fight song.
She said she had decided to stay at Brigham Young despite her experience, though she said, “This is a really awful policy.”
The federal Education Department urges colleges to make sure their discipline policies do not discourage students from coming forward to report sexual assaults. The policies should also remind students that their drinking or drug use is never an invitation for sexual violence, the agency says.
Madi Barney said she was so worried about facing Honor Code sanctions at Brigham Young that she waited four days in September before she went to the Provo police to report that she had been raped in her off-campus apartment by a man she knew, who was not a student.
“I just remember sobbing and telling the police officer I couldn’t go forward because B.Y.U. was going to kick me out,” said Ms. Barney, 20, who agreed to have her full name published.
But Ms. Barney’s police report made its way into the university’s hands anyway, after Nasiru Seidu, the man charged with assaulting her, gave it to an acquaintance who worked as a Utah County sheriff’s deputy, according to court records. The deputy, Edwin Randolph, passed it to the college.
Mr. Seidu and Mr. Randolph were charged with witness retaliation; the charges were later dropped. Mr. Seidu is still awaiting trial on the sexual assault allegations; as of Tuesday, a trial had not yet been set.
The university later contacted Ms. Barney to say it wanted to meet with her to investigate “other alleged Honor Code violations.” Last month, the university’s general counsel, Stephen Craig, emailed Ms. Barney’s lawyer to say that while B.Y.U. had not sought the police report, it was nevertheless “under an obligation to itself and to its students to investigate credible reports of Honor Code violation.”
“I understand that this is disappointing to you and to Madison,” Mr. Craig wrote to the lawyer. “The university nonetheless enforces its Honor Code. All students, when enrolling in the university, agree to moral standards of conduct, and agree that the standard is a condition for remaining at the university.”
The university asked her to cooperate with the Honor Code investigation. Ms. Barney, however, said she could not talk about the attack outside a courtroom while the criminal case was still open.
On March 4, Brigham Young’s lawyer wrote to say that Ms. Barney could finish the semester, but that the university would block her from enrolling in any more classes “until the Honor Code issues are resolved.”
Ms. Barney took her final exam at Brigham Young this month, and has decided she does not want to return.