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Reports of sex assault rise at BYU, but officials say that’s good news

SHARE Reports of sex assault rise at BYU, but officials say that’s good news

PROVO — The number of BYU students reporting sexual assaults is up this semester, but that's OK because it's a sign that more of them trust changes made by the school and are getting the help they need, says the administrator who takes the reports.

"It's very encouraging," said Tiffany Turley, who became BYU's first full-time Title IX coordinator in January.

"We knew these assaults were happening anyway. Now people are coming to the Title IX office to report them or visiting with the victim's advocate or going to Women's Services and Resources and getting help and information about all the resources that are available to help them."

A year ago this week, a 19-year-old woman named Madi Barney stood up in a campus forum and complained that the school's Honor Code Office launched an investigation into her own conduct after she told Provo police that a man had raped her. Other women came forward, adding to the specter that BYU was punishing sexual assault victims. The story gained national attention.

For the past six months, the school has been overhauling its policies, procedures and staff. This week, BYU issued a progress report and hosted daily campus events for National Sexual Assault Awareness Week.

The increase in reports — Turley said she couldn't share specific numbers — comes in the wake of a decision to adopt a provisional amnesty clause. Amnesty shields students who report sexual assault from being investigated or disciplined for Honor Code violations at or near the time of the assault.

Amnesty was one of 23 recommendations made in October by the Advisory Council on Campus Response to Sexual Assault. The recommendations were cheered by Barney and others who survived assaults while they were BYU students, though some think the amnesty statement isn't broad enough.

Survey underway

Most sexual assaults go unreported. One expert and member of BYU's Advisory Council, Julie Valentine, said last summer that one goal was to "create a climate where students will report."

Barney, who declined an interview request, and other students said a chilling effect on reporting existed at BYU because students feared that if they filed a report with campus or Provo police or with the campus Title IX Office, they would become subjects of honor code investigations that could find them suspended or expelled.

When Barney refused to cooperate with the Honor Code Office's investigation of her conduct, she said the university locked her out of registering for future classes. She is no longer a BYU student.

The amnesty statement and other recommendations were designed to remove the chilling effect and increase the likelihood students would feel free to report sexual assaults without fear, said Valentine, a sexual assault nurse examiner and BYU nursing professor known for her research on rape kits.

Among the recommendations was a survey to assess campus perceptions about sexual assault, reporting and the Title IX investigation process. BYU emailed a survey to all 30,000 students last month. Turley said more than 3,000 students have responded so far — exceeding expectations. The survey is open until April 17.

Obtained by the Deseret News, the survey includes two trigger warnings about the explicit nature of some of the descriptions and questions about sexual situations and unwanted sexual contact.

The survey will give the university a picture of how many students have been assaulted or have been a part of a Title IX investigation, about the pervasiveness of alcohol use, sexting and the use of gay or transgender slurs and the number of students who consider themselves gay or transgender.

It also will tell the university how students feel about BYU's efforts related to sexual harassment and assault, including whether BYU would investigate a sexual assault survivor's compliance with the honor code.

The honor code proscribes any use of alcohol and drugs and all sexual activity outside of marriage.

Feeling vindicated

Madeline MacDonald was one of the students who came forward to criticize the overlap between the Title IX Office — which is required by federal law to investigate sex-based discrimination and sexual assault — and the Honor Code Office.

The two offices shared one software system and their administrators shared information, leading to honor code investigations of some students who reported sexual assaults.

Honor Code Office employees investigated MacDonald after she reported to the past Title IX coordinator that she was sexually assaulted by a male student on a blind date in December 2014, even though she did not break the code at the time of the assault, she said. She was 18 at the time.

MacDonald said this week she felt partially vindicated when BYU announced in October it would grant amnesty to students coming forward as sexual assault victims and take steps to separate the offices. It was an acknowledgment, she said this week, that the Honor Code Office obtained her file from the Title IX Office.

MacDonald's honor code file was opened the same day she told Title IX administrators her date drove her to the foothills in Orem, removed her clothes and groped her as she told him no.

The Deseret News normally does not identify victims of sexual assault. MacDonald agreed to use her name.

She wished there had been a clear admission of wrongdoing by the school.

"There was never a 'We did something wrong. We apologize,'" MacDonald said. "There was never any clear accountability from people involved."

BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said the advisory committee spoke with many sexual assault victims last summer as it gathered information. "We have worked on an individual basis with students," she said.

Ongoing concern

MacDonald expressed frustration that administrators in place at the time of her investigation had remained in place. The Title IX coordinator, Sarah Westerberg, remained an associate dean of students but no longer has any responsibility for Title IX issues. The investigator in her case left the university.

MacDonald, too, left the campus. She transferred to the University of Utah in July and said her decision to transfer schools helped provide closure. At BYU, "I couldn’t go to lunch without seeing people who had been involved in trying to punish me for my assault. Being able to leave that behind — the physical separation — has been great."

Another source of support: a tight-knit community of sexual assault survivors that has formed after several students came forward last year saying the school punished them for being raped or assaulted. Many wrote to MacDonald and other student survivors, and the group shares tips via social media on navigating the Title IX process and coping with trauma.

MacDonald and others continued to have reservations about the amnesty statement because it grants immunity only "at or near the time" of a reported sexual assault. In the course of Title IX investigations, then, students found to have violated the honor code at another time outside of the alleged assault will receive what the school calls "leniency," but not total immunity from the honor code.

This distinction fails to provide real protection to those reporting assault, MacDonald said. Students who drink, do drugs or have consensual sex won't always be assaulted the very first time they engage in those activities, she said.

MacDonald believes the limited amnesty policy will have a chilling effect. "Women aren't going to report," she said.

BYU's Jenkins said the amnesty statement's provision of immunity for conduct "at or near" the time of an incident is standard. "If you look at amnesty statements around the country, many include that language," she said.

MacDonald also continues to want reforms beyond campus. She would like bishops in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates BYU, to receive mandatory training on how to respond to and help sexual assault victims. Without such a requirement, MacDonald said, "it really ends up being this leadership roulette. There’s no way to know if your bishop is going to be empathetic, is going to have training."

In fact, the advisory committee found that LDS bishops did have varied responses to sexual assault reports. Providing that information to church headquarters in Salt Lake City was one of the committee's 23 recommendations, and BYU has shared those findings. The LDS Church issued a condemnation of sexual assault last year when BYU announced it had formed an advisory committee.

Progress report

BYU has implemented most of the other recommendations and reported progress on the rest.

The amnesty clause soon will be permanent. The statement has been reviewed by the Student Advisory Council, the Faculty Advisory Council and the Administrative Advisory Council. A statement upholding the amnesty recommendation is being drafted, according to the progress report.

The school severed the sharing of information between the Title IX Office and Honor Code Office. They no longer have a single software system. The only information shared between the two happens when the Title IX Office refers alleged perpetrators for honor code investigation. In those cases, the names of the person who reported, all the victims and all the witnesses are redacted from what is shared.

Turley's position as a full-time Title IX coordinator represented another fulfilled recommendation. She reports directly the Student Life vice president, which further separates her role from the Honor Code Office, which reports up through the dean of students.

The Title IX Office has a new location, 1085 Wilkinson Student Center, separate from the Honor Code Office and Dean of Students Office. There also is a full-time receptionist. BYU added two deputy Title IX coordinators for international programs and faculty. The school created a new victim advocate position and hired Lisa Leavitt, who works out of the university's counseling center.

The university increased the training budget for everyone involved in sexual assault response, support and investigations, sending a dozen staffers, including Turley, to the Association of Title IX Administrators training in Orlando, Florida, in January.

The school also beefed up titleix.byu.edu, making it easier to report an incident. Staff members in the Women's Services and Resources Office have been designated as confidential sources for reporting sexual assault issues.

It also has enhanced efforts to increase campus awareness, beginning with freshmen orientation. BYU is hosting free public events every day this week as part of National Sexual Assault Awareness Week.

Campus awareness

On March 31, Elizabeth Smart told a crowd of 800 people about healing from sexual assault. On Monday, a few hundred people engaged in a "chalk the walk" event. On Tuesday, 40 students showed up for training on how to overcome the bystander effect and intervene when they see public incidents.

Turley and two deputies explained the bystander effect — that people are more likely to intervene when they are the only witness than when they are in a group, because the responsibility is diffused — issues related to conformity, ambiguity, authority and social and cultural factors.

They taught students to take personal responsibility, but to stay out of harm's way. Sometimes, they said, indirect help is best, calling the police, for example. Once one bystander steps up, others will help, they said.

Christina Holt, 19, a psychology major from Georgetown, Kentucky, is taking a women's studies class that spurred her to attend Tuesday's bystander training. She also filled out the campus climate survey.

"It's really important BYU is making these changes so women recognize that their safety is first and foremost," Holt said. "That's not to say the honor code is not important, but it's important to know that administrators will help."