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BYU finalizes amnesty for assault victims; 43% of students complete assault survey

FILE - Y Mountain east of Provo, Thursday, June 6, 2013.
FILE - Y Mountain east of Provo, Thursday, June 6, 2013.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

PROVO — LDS Church colleges and universities have finalized an amnesty policy that shields student victims and witnesses of sexual assault from honor code investigations, BYU announced Friday.

The policy, also adopted at BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii and LDS Business College, is intended to encourage students to report assaults without concern that the Honor Code Office might punish them for violations that could be uncovered during an assault investigation.

BYU also announced that nearly 43 percent of students completed a campus climate survey about perceptions and issues related to sexual assault.

The university adopted the amnesty policy in October amid other sweeping changes recommended by a hastily formed Advisory Council on Campus Response to Sexual Assault. The campus has operated under the amnesty statement since then. However, campus committees needed to review it before it could be added formally to the school's policies.

"When you look at the progress we've made in one year compared to other universities, I think it's pretty phenomenal," said Julie Valentine, a forensic nurse and BYU professor who served on the advisory council. "It's taken a number of universities two years to get to where we were after five months. There's been a real sense of urgency not only at BYU but throughout the LDS Church Education System."

Thirteen months ago, a then-19-year-old student named Madi Barney stood up in a campus forum and complained that the BYU'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 the university was punishing sexual assault victims. The story gained national attention.

Barney filed a complaint against BYU with the federal Office for Civil Rights, which is conducting a Title IX investigation. The Obama administration expanded Title IX's mandate in 2011 from gender discrimination to encompass sexual misconduct.

BYU formed the advisory council a year ago to study the issue. The group made 23 recommendations in the fall. The university has adopted all of them, including the amnesty statement.

The finalized amnesty policy states: "Anyone, including a victim, who reports an incident of sexual misconduct will not be disciplined by the university for any related honor code violation occurring at or near the time of the reported sexual misconduct unless a person’s health or safety is at risk. However, with victims or witnesses who have violated the honor code, the university may offer and encourage support, counseling or education efforts to help students and benefit the campus community."

BYU overhauled its Title IX staff, transferring the former part-time Title IX coordinator and hiring a full-time replacement, Tiffany Turley, a full-time receptionist and two additional deputy coordinators for international programs and faculty. Another full-time position, victim advocate, was added to the university counsel's office.

The school severed the relationship between the Title IX Office and Honor Code Office. They no longer share information or have a single software system. The only time information is shared is when the Title IX Office refers alleged perpetrators for honor code investigation. In those cases, the Title IX office redacts the names of the victim, any witnesses and the person who made the report.

The school separated the Title IX Office from the Honor Code Office physically, too, moving Title IX to 1085 Wilkinson Student Center.

The new policy also extends "leniency to victims and witnesses for other honor code violations that are not related to the incident but which may be discovered as a result of the investigatory process."

The goal of the policy is to increase reporting, Valentine said. Confidentiality is meant "to benefit students and to increase reporting," she added, "because we can't help students who do not report."

Critics have said the amnesty clause is too limited and will continue to have a chilling effect on victims. However, Turley, the new Title IX coordinator, said the number of sexual assault reports have climbed since the beginning of the year.

The amnesty and leniency clauses were reviewed by the Faculty Advisory Council, the Student Advisory Council and the Administrative Advisory Council. They now are formally included in the school's Sexual Misconduct Policy, BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said.

The campus survey was another recommendation of the advisory council. The university emailed the survey to 29,471 students in mid-March. Nearly half, 13,784 responded to the survey and 12,602, or 42.8 percent, completed the entire survey.

BYU gave away 100 iPads in a random drawing of those who completed the survey, kept the survey open longer than most schools and sent weekly reminders to students.

"We believe that the data gleaned from this survey will provide vital information for guiding our efforts to help keep students safe,” said Ben Ogles, dean of the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences.

Ogles was a member of the advisory council. He said the sample was representative of the entire student body and each college and demographic on campus.

The university will release the survey results publicly in the fall.