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BYU responds to student criticism, concerns over Honor Code Office

BYU campus on Sept. 7, 2013.
The sun rises on the BYU campus in Provo on Sept. 7, 2013.
Jaren Wilkey, BYU

PROVO — Some BYU students believe a document published on the school’s website Wednesday signals greater understanding between students and the Honor Code Office and how they interact.

“We very much appreciate what they are doing,” said Joseph Smith, a current BYU student who is part of a group called Restore Honor Movement on BYU Campus, part of a social media campaign targeting the school over claims from some students and former students that they have been treated unfairly, harshly or intrusively by BYU's Honor Code Office.

The document published at is tagged “Character” and titled, “Q&A with Kevin Utt, director of BYU’s Honor Code Office.”

“I, along with some other (students), met with (honor code officials) yesterday, and we discussed a lot of the things they put in that Q&A," Smith said Wednesday. "What it really shows is that the administration is listening.”

The school's post says Utt met with “many students to hear their concerns and answer questions about BYU’s Honor Code Office" and the responses to some of the common questions were published "for this dialogue to reach a wider audience."

BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, requires its students to sign an honor code promising to be honest, live chaste lives, obey the law and campus policies, abstain from drinking alcohol and regularly participate in church services, among other things.

The university's new post reviews the purpose of the Honor Code Office, the goal of enforcement (to help students get back into good standing), reporting requirements (encouraging fellow students to live the code "is not synonymous with 'turn someone in'"), the use of anonymous reports (the school does not investigate those under most circumstances), and whether ecclesiastical leaders share private information with the office (only if students sign a waiver).

Smith said that while the student group seeking changes sees the post as a positive sign, it doesn’t mean their work is finished.

“The main point is that we appreciate and we recognize the steps that are being taken by the Honor Code Office,” he said. “But it doesn’t entirely address a lot of the issues students have raised. We are continuing talking with the administration and Honor Code Office to bring about those other elements.”

The student group, which plans a sit-in and peaceful protest Friday on campus, is seeking a number of changes, but has two main points, according to Smith.

“We’d like to see a student advocacy group that works as an intermediary on students’ behalf and could provide counsel and assistance to students,” he said.

On its Twitter account @RestoreHonorBYU, the group says Utt “really liked the idea of a student advocacy group.” The tweet also said Utt committed to helping the group continue meeting with school administrators.

“It shows they’re listening,” said Smith, who added the group is also seeking a provision in the honor code that ensures “an equal standard of enforcement and expectation for all students, regardless of race, gender or religion, to be treated the same.”

Utt took over as director of the office in January.

The Q&A attempts to address misconceptions or misunderstandings, including some that have surfaced as students have shared their stories on an Instagram account (@HonorCodeStories) that exploded in popularity last week, about issues with the Honor Code Office.

The school's post says there are no “set consequences” for certain violations.

"Context matters. The motivation, intent and openness of the student, and the impact and relative severity of the behavior must be considered when determining the appropriate path forward for each student," Utt wrote.

It gives options of what students can do if they disagree with an enforcement decision, and discusses how the Honor Code Office interacts with the Title lX office. It said that the policies regarding sexual misconduct changed, mandating a move from the Honor Code Office to the Title lX office in every case. That change came in 2016 in an effort to better address sexual assault cases.

The woman who started this movement with the Instagram account describing her own experience with the Honor Code Office echoed what Smith said, while pointing out this means that the intentions behind the honor code and the practice of enforcing it may not always be in sync.

"I appreciate that we are being listened to, and the first step to change is, 'Hey, hear us out; listen to our stories,'" said Sidney Draughon, who graduated in December and started the Instagram account in January thinking that some might be comforted to know they are not alone in the pain sometimes associated with dealing with the office.

"However, the Q&A acknowledges our concerns, but it doesn't bring to light what's actually going on."

She said more than 1,000 people have sent her their stories to share on the Instagram account that now has nearly 35,000 followers, and she believes those stories indicate there are issues with what the school's policies strive to accomplish and what they actually do accomplish.

"As students and alum, we are here telling you how it feels to sit on the couch in your office, to feel so much hurt and so much shame," she said. "Clearly there is a disconnect. … We are here because the policies aren't being implemented the way they were intended. We know you love us. We know you're doing your best. … We are asking for so much more protection, and honestly, so much more love."

Some aspects of the document appear to conflict with recent media reports of specific student experiences. For example, Utt said the Honor Code Office “does not investigate anonymous reports, except where the reported behavior could impact the physical safety of our campus community.”

Former BYU football player Hans Olsen had several issues with the Honor Code Office years ago that resulted in him being placed on probation for nearly three years. He said one allegation was that he got someone pregnant, which he denied, asking officials who made the accusation.

“They knew whose name was on the record, but they would not tell me who it was,” he said. “When I asked her name, they said, ‘We can’t give it to you.’ When I asked why, they said, ‘Because she said you’re an abusive individual.’”

He said there was nothing to do but “cry” as the report was eventually disproved and dismissed.

“I never felt like they had my best interest in mind, ever,” he said. “I dealt with the same person for three years, and I never felt like that office, in general, had my best interest in mind.”

He stressed that his experience, which spanned 1998-2000, may not be what current students are experiencing.

“They definitely could have changed by now,” Olsen said. “I hope it’s changed from when I went through it, because it was garbage.”

Carri Jenkins, assistant to the president for University Communications, pointed out that "past experiences of some students may not reflect current practices" of the Honor Code Office.

She reiterated that the office "does not act on anonymous reports except where the reported behavior could impact the safety of members of our campus community. … Unless disclosing the name of the complainant would put that person at risk, the (office) would share their identity if asked."

Olsen said part of the issue is that students sometimes fear losing their educational opportunities when seeking help from the Honor Code Office, something they don’t generally fear when they address moral issues with a bishop or ecclesiastical leader.

“They could potentially ruin my life, and completely alter my future,” he said. “I don’t think they necessarily took what I was doing into account.”

The Q&A stresses that the purpose of the honor code enforcement is to “help students come back into good standing as quickly as possible. We want students to succeed here.”

It points out that between 10 and 15 students are expelled each year from BYU, a miniscule amount when considering the university educates about 33,000 students.

“Decisions are carefully considered as the (Honor Code Office) strives to protect the rights, health and safety of all members of the BYU community,” Utt wrote.

There was a similar effort organized at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg by a student group that posted an official "demand of action" and organized a march on Wednesday. Among those demands were training in psychology and sensitivity regarding "people of color, LGBTQA+ community, women, sexual assault/rape" and limiting investigations to current reports, not relying on old issues. That group is also asking for a student advocacy council at its school.