Liberty University will pay $14 million, the largest fine ever levied under the federal Clery Act

Associated Press [New York NY]

March 5, 2024

By Ben Finley

Liberty University has agreed to pay an unprecedented $14 million fine for the Christian school’s failure to disclose information about crimes on its campus and for its treatment of sexual assault survivors, the U.S. Department of Education announced Tuesday.

The fine is by far the largest ever levied under the Clery Act, a law that requires colleges and universities that receive federal funding to collect data on campus crime and notify students of threats. Schools must disseminate an annual security report that includes crime reports and information on efforts to improve campus safety.

Liberty has marketed itself for years as having one of the nation’s safest campuses, with more than 15,000 students enrolled at the school in Lynchburg. But its police department had a single officer with minimal oversight who was investigating crimes for most of the time period reviewed by federal investigators, 2016 to 2023.

The U.S. Department of Education said it identified numerous cases that resulted in the misclassification or underreporting of crimes. And there were several incidents that the university determined to be unfounded without any clear showing that the initial report was false or baseless.

“This was especially common with respect to sexually based offenses, including rape and fondling cases, many of which were originally classified using non-specific or less specific codes such as sexual assault,” the settlement agreement stated.

Federal investigators found that many victims of sexual crimes were fearful of reporting their incidents because of fear of reprisal.

“In fact, over the course of this review period, several sexual assault victims were punished for violating the student code of conduct known as ‘The Liberty Way,’ while their assailants were left unpunished,” according to the settlement agreement.

“Consequently, victims of sexual assault often felt dissuaded by Liberty administration’s reputation for punishing sexual assault survivors rather than helping them,” the agreement said. “Such fears created a culture of silence where sexual assaults commonly went unreported.”

The university said in a statement Tuesday that it is “fully committed to maintaining the safety and security of students and staff without exception.”

The school said it would continue to cooperate with the U.S. Department of Education. And it noted that it has made more than $10 million in significant improvements since 2022 toward complying with the Clery Act and other laws, including in educational programming, new leadership and staffing.

Liberty also acknowledged past problems, including “incorrect statistical reports as well as necessary timely warnings and emergency notifications that were not sent.” But the university also said the U.S. Department had employed methods and calculations that were “drastically different from their historic treatment of other universities.”

“Liberty disagrees with this approach and maintains that we have repeatedly endured selective and unfair treatment by the department,” the school said in a statement.

Before Tuesday, the largest Clery Act fine in history was $4.5 million against Michigan State in 2019, according to a February report from the Congressional Research Service. Federal investigators said Michigan State failed to adequately respond to sexual assault complaints against Larry Nassar, a campus sports doctor who molested elite gymnasts and other female athletes.

In 2016, Pennsylvania State University was hit with a then-record fine of $2.4 million in the wake of child sexual-abuse complaints against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

The $14 million fine against Liberty University appears to be a small fraction of its total operating revenues, which were $1.2 billion without donor restrictions in fiscal year 2022, according to an annual report. The school’s net assets were $3.5 billion.

But Clery Act violations are “bigger than just the fines,” said Abigail Boyer, associate executive director at the Pennsylvania-based Clery Center, which provides training and assistance to campuses.

“Hand in hand with the fines is institutions navigating how they’re now being perceived publicly as a campus that may or may not be focusing on the safety and well being of students,” Boyer told The Associated Press.

Liberty has become one of the world’s largest Christian schools since its 1971 co-founding by religious broadcaster Jerry Falwell Sr. In 2022, the school said it hit a record of 115,000 students pursuing degrees online, beyond the more than 15,000 were enrolled at its campus in Lynchburg.

The university was already facing scrutiny in the form of lawsuits over its handling of sex assault cases, while the Clery Act investigation became public knowledge in 2022 in the wake of recent litigation.

Lawsuits by former students and employees have accused the school of botching sexual assault reports or failing to investigate allegations of rape. The litigation was filed under under Title IX, the federal law that protects against sex discrimination in education and often overlaps with Clery.

Liberty settled a civil lawsuit filed by 12 women in 2022 after they accused the school of fostering an unsafe environment and mishandling cases of sexual assault and harassment.

The women alleged that Liberty’s strict honor code made it “difficult or impossible” for students to report sexual violence. The lawsuit said the university had a “tacit policy” of weighting investigations in favor of accused male students, and it said the university retaliated against women who did make such reports.

The terms of that lawsuit’s settlement were not disclosed. But at the time, Liberty outlined a number of changes it undertook to improve campus security and review how it responds to incidents of sexual harassment or violence.

The school had said it spent more than $8.5 million on campus security upgrades, while ensuring more licensed mental health providers where available to provide counseling.

The university said it was also revising its amnesty policy to “better communicate” that it will not discipline parties who engage in behaviors, in connection with a case of sexual harassment or assault “that would have otherwise violated its student honor code.”

Tuesday’s announcement comes three years after Liberty’s acrimonious split with former president Jerry Falwell Jr., whose exit followed his posting of a provocative photo of himself online as well as revelations of his wife’s extramarital affair. Falwell and the university have since filed lawsuits against each other over his departure.