PROVO — BYU issued a statement Monday addressing the recent debate over whether the school's Title IX and Honor Code offices properly handle the cases of victims who report sexual assault.
The university said it will examine "potential structural changes" in the relationship between the two offices "and how information is used."
"When a student reports a sexual assault, our primary focus is on the well-being of the victim," the statement reads. "BYU also promotes the safety and well-being of its students through its Honor Code, which is a commitment to conduct that reflects the ideals and principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
The issue surfaced earlier this month when a 19 year-old student said at an on-campus rape awareness meeting that a friend of the man accused of raping her had reached out to BYU to incriminate her for an Honor Code violation.
Last week, a Utah County deputy attorney expressed frustration with the Honor Code office’s inquiry into the woman, saying it had the potential to interfere with prosecutors' criminal case against her alleged rapist.
An online petition signed by nearly 59,000 people as of Monday evening has railed against what critics call the potential chilling effect of BYU Honor Code investigations into victims of sexual violence. The petition requests that the school "stop punishing victims of sexual assault."
BYU promised in its statement to look into such criticisms.
"We care deeply about the safety of our students," the statement said. "We have decided to study these issues, including potential structural changes within the university, the process for determining whether and how information is used, and the relationship between the Title IX office and the Honor Code office."
Sophomore Madeline MacDonald, a survivor of sexual assault, said she is "cautiously optimistic" that BYU's statement Monday will signal real change.
"I’m hopeful that they’re going to make changes," MacDonald said. "Now there are so many people watching, (I hope) that they really have to."
MacDonald was sexually assaulted in 2014 during her first semester at BYU, she said, and her report to the Title IX Office was turned over the Honor Code Office within hours.
"I couldn’t believe how short the time was from when they first heard my story to when they started treating me like that I was the guilty one," MacDonald said.
MacDonald was never found in violation of the Honor Code, she said, but "the fact that I was investigated tells so much." She said she hopes BYU will create an amnesty clause in its Honor Code for those who report sexual assault. She also hopes the school will protect information that goes to the Title IX Office from being transferred to Honor Code officials.
"Right now they’re just so intertwined," MacDonald said. "That just seems so wrong to me. … The Honor Code office is a specifically BYU thing. … But the Title IX office is a federally mandated office. Those should be completely separate things."
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins also said Monday that school administrators "are listening to concerns that have been expressed about the reporting of sexual assaults at the university."
The conversation about how BYU may be able to adjust its policies with regard to sexual assault reporting already is underway, according to Jenkins.
BYU also defended both its Title IX and Honor Code investigation processes, which the school says are done independently of each other.
"A Title IX investigation is never conducted to harass or retraumatize a victim. A victim of a sexual assault will never be referred to the Honor Code office for being a victim of sexual assault," according to the statement. "Sometimes in the course of an investigation, facts come to light that a victim has engaged in prior Honor Code violations. The university recognizes the inherent tension, in some circumstances, in these two important parts of BYU’s efforts to create and maintain an atmosphere consistent with the ideals and principles of the (LDS) Church."
The university said Honor Code investigations are conducted with "fairness, sensitivity and compassion, taking into account all mitigating facts and circumstances."
"At the same time, BYU has zero tolerance for students who commit sexual violence," BYU's statement said.
The defendant in the rape case that brought the Honor Code inquiry to light is Nasiru Seidu, 39, of Orem. A competency hearing in that case has been scheduled for June 8.
Edwin Randolph, an alleged the friend of Seidu who turned over the police report to BYU that prompted the Honor Code inquiry, was originally charged with retaliation against a victim for the alleged behavior. The third-degree felony charge was dropped a few days later, but Randolph, a jail deputy for the Utah County Sheriff's Office, was disciplined by the agency in connection with the incident following an internal investigation.
Randolph, who remains employed by the sheriff's office, has denied trying to seek out university punishment against the victim of the alleged rape.
Contributing: Ashley Moser, Cleon Wall