PROVO — When Brigham Young University recently sacked four football players, the decision was the result of a top-secret investigation conducted by a mostly unknown team of five people sequestered in a quiet corner of campus.
The Honor Code Office remains shrouded in mystery, jerked out of obscurity at irregular intervals when its reviews of possible violations of the school's strict code of conduct involve high-profile students. For many inside and outside the BYU community, the Honor Code Office calls to mind an officious band of moralizing zealots spying on students and harshly enforcing unreasonable rules.
No sex between consenting adults? Bans on beards, body piercing and bars? Doesn't sound much like a typical college campus.
Of course, that's the point at this LDS Church-owned university.
And despite myths to the contrary, officials say, draconian methods of enforcement of the school's strict rules of comportment aren't necessary to create "an atmosphere consistent with the ideals and principles" of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"We don't go out and look for honor code violations," said Steve Baker, director of the school's Honor Code Office. "Philosophically and practically, that's not something we want to do."
Baker and four other "honor code counselors" would be hard-pressed to find time to spy while handling between 300 and 1,000 reported honor-code violations each year.
The honor code is basically a list of rules students are asked to follow. Among other things, the honor code prohibits premarital sex and consumption of alcohol and tobacco.
Cases handled by Baker's team represent 1 percent to 2 percent of the student body, according to a recent internal study, Baker said. The same percentage holds for athletes.
Obviously, many more students fall short of exact compliance, and Baker said his office actually shuns many cases.
"We tell people, 'Here's the expectation. We're here to help, and we'll always help if you'll identify yourself and provide information, but is there another way you can intervene?' "
There are a lot of ways to handle lower-level infractions, he said.
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"You can punch a friend in the arm and say, 'Knock it off.' You can put your arm around someone and say, 'Come on.' "
Most students list the school's "moral environment" as a reason they chose and support the honor code. In fact, they must commit to follow it before they can enroll and must annually recommit to observe it once they are students through a program called Ecclesiastical Endorsements.
Baker's office annually handles 30,000 endorsements, which are basically notes of approval from the student's ecclesiastical leader, between January and March.
The Honor Code Office at BYU was thrust into the public spotlight most recently when university administration decided to dismiss one football player permanently and suspend three others for a year for their roles in a January party that included sex and alcohol.
Two of the players, leading rusher Rey Brathwaite and defensive back James Allen, were to be key seniors this fall in coach Gary Crowton's attempt to improve on last year's 4-8 season.
"I didn't hear the whole story, but from what I understand it seemed like the right thing to do so they didn't compromise the standards of the school," said Paul Louthan, a sophomore from Moab who plans to study construction management. "And I don't think the football team can get any worse."
Still, there are plenty of persistent rumors about the Honor Code Office, which generally operates covertly because of federal privacy laws and ecclesiastical confidentiality.
Some say LDS bishops turn in students. Others, regardless of denials by school administration, believe agents from the office seek out violators.
"I heard that one a lot more when I came on," Baker said. "I hear it a lot less now. There is no group or organization or even unofficial groups who report things to us. We get independent referrals from students, faculty, staff, roommates, parents, brothers, sisters and yes, occasionally, the vindictive person."
The office doesn't accept anonymous referrals. According to the policy, "The (Honor Code Office) never investigates a report given by people who are unwilling to identify themselves by giving their names, phone numbers, Social Security numbers and addresses."
But that policy leads to another frequent complaint — that Baker's team sweeps some tips under the rug. Baker said those charges are usually leveled after anonymous or incomplete referrals.
"We don't think it's right for someone to come in, call in or e-mail and say, 'I know someone did something but I don't want to give my name, I don't want to be a part of it,' " he said.
Students can confess honor code violations to their LDS bishops without concern of a report to BYU. However, bishops, the leaders of LDS congregations, can revoke students' ecclesiastical endorsements.
"In no instance," BYU's policy reads, are bishops "obligated to have offending students report their misconduct to the Honor Code Office."
A bishop who feels intervention may help the student can suggest it but cannot contact BYU unless the student signs a form called a "Waiver of Priest/Parishioner Privilege and Consent to Share Confidential Information."
Once the office receives a referral, it is assigned to one of the five counselors, who brings in the student and then conducts an investigation. That can include questioning witnesses and searching public police records. It can lead to difficult discussions about sex and other intimate topics.
"Sometimes people say, 'Steve, you can't ask those kinds of questions,' but I have to," Baker said. "Sometimes it's hard because we're talking about really sensitive, delicate information. . . . I have to respect that some people will be uncomfortable."
Baker, a former BYU police officer, has a copy of "Fundamentals of Criminal Investigation" on his bookshelf not far from "The Miracle of Forgiveness," a book written by the late LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball.
But he said he is neither cop nor ecclesiastical leader. His former profession wins him no favors with the BYU, Provo or Orem police departments. Even without a police report, he said, some major cases are easy to investigate.
"We really use normal information-gathering," he said. "We try to be very considerate, but we certainly have a right to ask people questions. We're looking for good information. No matter what, we conduct our own independent investigation."
Administrators and students are sometimes surprised by outside criticism of the school's honor code, especially the grooming rules.
Most college kids in America would scoff at rules banning beards and piercing body parts.
"Every school has an honor code," Dean of Students Vern Heperi said. "Even if it isn't written, there is a law of the land. If they say they don't have one, ask what happens if they have underage drinking. If they say they call the police, they have an honor code. It's by default, but they have one."
The honor code, say school officials, is intended to help BYU students build character and remain true to their faith.
"We're interested in guiding our students in their everyday activities," Heperi said. "We don't want to pull them away from the world but guide them through their everyday lives."
Accusations that the guidelines are seen by some as symptomatic of a "holier than thou" attitude surprises BYU students.
"The honor code upholds what BYU stands for," said Matt Cox, a freshman from Massachusetts. "It's why we come here. Why wouldn't you follow the honor code? I don't follow the honor code to be better than other people, to be 'holier than thou.' I came to BYU because I wanted us all to be improved by each other."
The role of the Honor Code Office is to enforce the standards to protect the atmosphere sought by students like Cox. Baker said that usually means just educating violators about what is expected. If it goes further, counselors make a recommendation about a case to an honor code committee that includes students and representatives from other areas of campus to help provide perspective. Committee meetings can include vigorous discussion, Baker and Heperi said.
"The mass majority of cases we deal with do not result in time away from the university," Baker said, referring to permanent dismissals and suspensions. "The committee looks for appropriate ways to keep the student on campus."
The suspended football players have been given letters outlining conditions they must meet if they want to re-enroll in January 2005. Conditions include progress visits with honor code counselors and customized selections from a list that includes journal writing, attendance at university forums and devotionals, service projects and drug testing.
"Most of the people do return," Baker said. "We tell them we want them to return. I tell them, 'If you work this thing through, you will be welcomed back and nothing will be held against you.'
"Those aren't words, that's how we really feel."