Liberty University Hit with Record $14 Million Fine for Clery Act Violations

The Roys Report [Chicago IL]

March 5, 2024

By Liz Lykins

Liberty University, one of the largest Christian schools in the nation, has agreed to pay an unprecedented $14 million fine for Clery Act violations, according to a press release from the school.

Liberty created a culture of fear for sexual assault victims, failed to maintain accurate crime data, and had “impaired administrative capability” that extended to campus police, according to a 108-page report from the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The large Christian school in Lynchburg had “numerous areas of noncompliance” with the Clery Act, the ED said.

Under the Clery Act, colleges that participate in federal student aid programs must disclose certain information about crime and campus safety. Liberty University, with more than 15,000 students on its Lynchburg, Virginia, campus and 130,000 enrolled worldwide, received $874 million for student loans, The Roys Report (TRR) previously reported.

The ED’s review of Liberty, which examined findings from 2016 to 2022, is now completed with this fine and final report. The agreement also specified that Liberty must earmark an additional $2 million in funds for “new campus safety improvements,” according to the university’s press release. 

“While Liberty has not always agreed with its treatment by the Department, we concur that numerous compliance deficiencies existed in the past,” said Liberty President Dondi E. Costin in Liberty’s press release. “We acknowledge and sincerely regret these errors and have since corrected them in a manner that allows us to maintain compliance in each of these areas.”

Costin noted that the settlement will be added to the more than $10 million that Liberty has spent on “significant advancements” on campus since 2022.

Liberty’s fine is one of the largest fines issued by the ED. Penn State received a $2.4 million fine for not reporting Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of boys. And Michigan State got a $4.5 million fine for its failure to address Larry Nassar’s sexual assaults.

In its press release, Liberty claimed it received “drastically different” and “unfair” treatment from the ED, compared to other universities.

However, S. Daniel Carter, a campus safety consultant and expert, told TRR that the scope of the violations, coupled with Liberty’s size, justify the fine.

Liberty’s Clery Act violations were “systemic,” Carter said. From administration to staff training, Liberty didn’t “take compliance seriously,” he said. “(Liberty is) not providing the community with what they need to protect themselves.”

Carter added that the ED report is a sign to other universities that it’s important to take the Clery Act seriously.

Clery Act Violations Stem from Administration

Carter said the biggest failure on Liberty’s part was its lack of administrative capabilities.

The ED found that because of “sufficient oversight” and “coordination” in Liberty administration, crime victims were not advised of their rights and options and were not “sufficiently” able to access support.

These failures extended to the Liberty University Police Department (LUPD), which repeatedly didn’t issue timely warnings and emergency notifications. The LUPD also did not maintain an accurate and complete daily crime log. Liberty omitted more than 1,400 crime logs and had errors in more than 1,900 others, the ED said.

In one instance, the university failed to enter a crime log that involved an alleged rape committed by a former Liberty President, the ED said. The findings reportedly did not specify which former president or whether the school investigated. Instead, it focused on whether the report was logged as required by the Clery Act.

Liberty also failed to warn those on campus about other people credibly accused of sexual violence, including a senior administrator and an athlete. While the report finds that top officials knew about the administrator’s alleged misconduct, no campus warnings were ever issued.

Liberty created culture of fear for victims

These continued administrative errors created a culture of fear for victims, the ED said.

“Numerous victims of sexual assault have been reluctant to speak up about their assaults because of fear of reprisal,” the report said. “Victims of sexual assault often felt dissuaded by Liberty administration’s reputation for punishing sexual assault survivors rather than helping them. Such fears created a culture of silence where sexual assaults commonly went unreported.”

The report added that several sexual assault victims were punished for violating the student code of conduct known as “The Liberty Way.” The Liberty Way has enabled victims to be questioned on how their own conduct may have contributed to the crime, the ED said.

ED’s Findings Support TRR Investigations

The ED’s report confirms a story that TRR previously published about a former student who claimed Liberty failed to report her gang rape in 2005. The student filed a complaint with a victim advocacy group. This led to an investigation by the ED and a settlement in 2014, requiring Liberty to pay a $120,000 fine.

The report also echoes TRR’s report on numerous women who alleged that Liberty created an unsafe environment that enabled on-campus rapes. The women filed a highly publicized class-action lawsuit against the school.

Sarah Mays, one of the plaintiffs who refused to settle with Liberty in the class-action suit, said she is grateful this fine forces some accountability for Liberty.

“This is just kind of the first time. . . that there’s irrefutable evidence and proof and someone actually holding their feet to the fire and holding them accountable,” she said. “You know 14 million is a drop in the bucket for them. I don’t think that they are worried about paying that fine at all.”

While Mays noted the $14 million fine is less than she hoped for them to pay, she’s glad Liberty will have to use an additional $2 million to directly support campus.

Liberty failed to reliably keep crime data across campus

Additionally, the university did not have reliable methods of keeping crime-related data across all campus departments. Many staff were uniformed or not properly trained on how to properly report crime data, the ED said.

As a result, departments such as Athletics failed to pass along data to the university departments in charge of addressing this. The Athletics department was also unable to produce the relevant emails for a sexual assault victim when she asked for the records in a lawsuit, the ED said.

“Liberty eventually conceded that many of the requested emails had been deleted even though less relevant messages continued to be readily available,” the report said.

ED dismissed several previous charges

However, the ED dismissed several previous charges against the University.

The ED previously found that Liberty fired a former senior vice president after he tried to address Clery Act violations. However, the latest report said that Liberty provided legitimate reasons for terminating the employee, including mismanagement of university funds and insubordination.

The ED said that it finds Liberty’s reasons “persuasive.”

The ED had also alleged that Liberty’s IT staff had wiped certain computer hard drives in 2022 before a campus visit from ED staff.

ED clarified these claims in its current report, stating that Liberty actually provided “credible” evidence that all the information on these drives was uploaded to a cloud based data storage system.

“Based on this new information, the Department recognizes that references suggesting that the University deleted the data from the hard drive with ill intent is not supported by the current record,” the ED said.