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Would BYU honor code be better with an amnesty clause like Southern Virginia's?

BUENA VISTA, Virginia — The dating culture at LDS-oriented Southern Virginia University has undergone a major change recently, and it may have implications for Brigham Young University and the controversy over its policies for students who report sexual assaults.

Before Shoushig Tenguerian, a 23-year-old from Brooklyn, New York, served a Mormon mission, she saw some strong relationships on campus that led to good marriages.

Other relationships weren't healthy, she said, and the Family and Child Development major struggled with how to help.

Now, after her mission to Armenia and as her senior year comes to an end, she said SVU is a safer place for women because its honor code now has been supplemented by federal Title IX guidelines, including an amnesty clause.

Amnesty clauses, which encourage students to report sexual misconduct by pledging that a school will not punish victims or witnesses who step forward for their own alcohol or drug use or other conduct violations, are sweeping the country. New York passed a law last year that requires every college and university in the state to offer amnesty. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed an amnesty bill into law last month. The question at BYU, which is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is whether an amnesty provision would work at a deeply religious school with an honor code that is as much of its identity as Y Mountain, mint chocolate brownies and great quarterbacks.

"That's something that's on the table for us," said BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins, who acknowledged that she has spoken to Southern Virginia representatives. "We've begun looking at these other schools with amnesty clauses and what they do."

Striking similarities

Unlike BYU and it sister schools — BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii and LDS Business College — Southern Virginia is not owned and operated by the LDS Church. However, its creators launched the school 20 years ago as an eastern alternative and 9 out of 10 SVU students are Mormons.

SVU's honor code is similar to BYU's, too, and both schools are also the subjects of recent complaints to the federal Office of Civil Rights, a division of the national Department of Education. Last year, the OCR investigated a complaint by an SVU student against an administrator. The administrator was cleared, university spokesman Chris Pendleton said, but after investigators visited the campus in March 2015 they ruled that SVU was out of compliance with federal Title IX guidelines surrounding sexual misconduct policies.

Compliance with Title IX is a requirement for schools like SVU that rely heavily on federal funds for Pell grants and other financial aid for its students. If they are not in compliance, they can lose all of that federal funding.

SVU did not have a Title IX office, so it created one. Then in August it appointed its former Senior Woman Administrator for athletics as its Title IX director, who oversees reports of sexual misconduct. Deidra Dryden, who doubles as the school's tennis coach and has been an adjunct math professor, spent this school year training students and staff about all over campus about sexual misconduct and healthy relationships with the help of Tenguerian and three other student interns.

BYU student Madi Barney recently said she filed a federal complaint against the Provo, Utah, school alleging it doesn't follow Title IX guidelines. She and other students said they don't feel safe reporting that they were victims of sexual assaults because BYU's Honor Code Office and Title IX office share information, and rape victims can become subjects of honor code investigations for their own misconduct, such as drinking alcohol or taking illegal drugs.

Barney started an online petition calling for BYU to add an immunity clause to its honor code. The petition now has 111,000 signatures.

Balancing act

Student protestors at BYU have been pushing for the school to adopt an amnesty clause much like that now in place at SVU.

Many universities now have "medical amnesty" clauses that encourage students to call police without fear of sanction if someone’s life is in danger from drugs or alcohol. The core concern here is a drug overdose, more common with illicit drugs than underage alcohol.

But amnesty itself is multi-layered and complicated, according to Scott Cecil, an outreach coordinator with the Washington, D.C.-based Students for a Sensible Drug Policy.

"Medical amnesty is just for the person overdosing," Cecil said, "but it does nothing to encourage bystanders to make the emergency call, and it does nothing to protect the other people in the room from repercussions."

SSDP favors more far-reaching amnesty policies that minimizes barriers to seeking help. This begins with a Good Samaratin provision that protects a bystander as well as the person at risk.

Cecil says that SSDP’s Good Samaritan initiative has built bridges to many colleges where officials are reluctant to appear soft on drugs but will more readily embrace policies that encourage people to help save a life.

This can be a difficult balance. At Johns Hopkins University, for example, the amnesty policy states that students and fraternities that cause "repeated or serious medical emergencies" may face consequences. The policy also states that individuals or organizations (fraternities or sororities) involved in a drug or alcohol incident may be required to take "corrective measures," such as counseling or changes in group policies. Failure to complete those steps may result in disciplinary action.

While most college amnesty clauses focus on medical emergencies related to the drug use, some campuses have begun employing them to encourage reporting of sexual assault as well.

In March, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a sexual assault amnesty law. The Wisconsin bill specifically addresses underage drinking but does not apply to illicit drugs. It does, however, extend protection to bystanders on the scene who call the police. Both the victim and the caller are protected.

Southern Virginia

SVU has posted its amnesty clause on its website:

"To encourage reporting of Title IX violations, anyone who reports sexual misconduct, either as a witness or complainant, will not be subject to disciplinary action by the university for their own personal use of alcohol or drugs at or near the time of the incident."

Tenguerian said before she left on her mission she believed SVU's honor code created a safer environment than that of other schools because drugs and alcohol fuel rape culture on many campuses. But now, after a year providing Title IX training to students about stalking, dating violence, sexual exploitation, sexual assault, consent and healthy relationships, she feels even safer.

"Tell me a place that's not a temple that's not flawed," she said. "We're not perfect, this place is not perfect, but personally as a student I feel safer."

A limited, provisional amnesty clause like SVU's or those in New York, Wisconsin or Oregon, can make a real difference, Dryden said.

"Our major responsibility as a Title IX office is to take away barriers to reporting," Dryden said. "Many sexual assaults are committed by individuals who are repeat offenders, so whenever someone reports it has the potential to stop an other person from being assaulted."

Dryden said she recognizes giving amnesty or immunity to students who may have violated the honor code is a difficult concept for some people. Students at BYU and SVU agree to and sign the code before they step on campus. She said the school isn't naive; the possibility exists that a student with an honor code issue might try to manipulate the amnesty policy.

"Fortunately that has not happened yet," she said. "We hope it won't. We're not naive enough to think that couldn't cause problems, but when you weight the two out, it's better we feel to take away the barriers to reporting."

Should they share?

Amnesty was an important piece of the training done on SVU's campus this year by Dryden, Tenguerian and three other student interns.

"We make sure in our training with students," Dryden said, "that they understand that if they come to report an incident to the Title IX coordinator, that they will not be investigated by Student Life for an honor code infraction. We make sure they understand that doesn't happen."

Barney and others have criticized BYU for sharing information between its Honor Code Office and its Title IX office, where students go to report sexual misconduct. They say that sharing of information has a chilling effect on students, because it could have the effect of punishing victims for reporting rape or other sexual violence. Some students say they have reported rapes and become the subjects of honor code investigations for their own alleged honor code misconduct near the time of the assault.

BYU President Kevin Worthen recently acknowledged the tension between victim reports and the honor code.

"Sometimes the fear of what's going to happen may keep them from coming in," he said. "There is that tension, and there's perception. What we want to do is minimize that as much as possible, because our primary concern again is really over the well-being of the victim of sexual assault and the overall well-being of the campus."

Worthen said BYU needs to do better and will. The university has launched a review of its policies. He said the school will look specifically at how information is shared between the Title IX office and the Honor Code Office and whether it should be.

SVU determined it would not allow the offices to share information. It put up a figurative wall between its Title IX office and the Dean of Student Life, who investigates honor code violations. Dryden never shares information with Student Life. Sharing only goes the other way.

"If a young women or a young man goes into our dean of students and begins to talk about an issue, if it appears to the dean of students that is an issue that could be considered a Title IX issue, then he turns that student over to me, and then from there on out, I deal with that investigation," Dryden said.

Dryden and Tenguerian believe student dating relationships are healthier now because of the added awareness of issues related to consent and sexual violence. Tenguerian said students feel safer.

"I'm a Relief Society president (in an LDS congregation)," she said, "so a lot of girls come up to me and talk, and I love that I get to tell them there's Title IX, and you can talk to someone and you don't need to be scared. What matters is that you're OK, and there's help.

"People are talking about it, both guys and girls, and there's an awareness. That's what we wanted, and it's happening. It matters."