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Social media campaign targets BYU Honor Code Office

Stories share frustrating experiences; school says complaints are leading to 'constructive dialogue'

PROVO — The letter made Hans Olsen sick.

"I got a letter in the mail that said essentially, 'We have reason to believe you've violated the honor code you committed to living up to, and you have a meeting on such-and-such a date,'" said Olsen, a former BYU football player who received his first letter from BYU's Honor Code Office his sophomore year.

"You're sick. You've got all these different worries and concerns. … I'm an LDS guy. I wanted to live by the code, and it made me sick to think I'd violated it."

What Olsen did in violating BYU's honor code, he said, wasn't considered a sin in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns the school. Yet he found himself facing the possibility of punishment because of honor code standards he'd agreed to when he accepted a football scholarship two years earlier.

"I thought, 'My teammates are going to make fun of me, my coaches are going to be mad at me, my parents are going to be ashamed of me,'" he said. "So you have all these thoughts swirling around in your head, and that's tough to deal with."

An aerial view of the BYU campus looking east toward Y Mountain in Provo, Utah, on Sept. 7, 2013.
The sun rises on the BYU campus in Provo on Sept. 7, 2013.
Jaren Wilkey, BYU

It is an anguish felt by other students and former students who claim they have been treated unfairly, harshly or intrusively by BYU's Honor Code Office and have taken to social media to raise awareness about their concerns and call for changes to the office.

It was so painful for 2018 graduate Sidney Draughon that she created an Instagram account in January called Honor Code Stories, which she hoped would let other students know they're not alone in the humiliation and heartache that she said sometimes comes from the experiences.

"It was so traumatic, so discouraging," Draughon said. "I feel like I'm a very happy, upbeat, positive person, and fortunately, I've never really experienced depression. But during that time dealing with the Honor Code Office, it was the darkest time. I didn't even want to get out of bed, I felt so much anxiety."

Draughon even applied to the University of Utah thinking it would be easier to complete her degree there than to fight allegations leveled at her by the office. It was a conversation with her bishop that persuaded her to stay in Provo.

"I wanted to be at BYU," she said. "I loved my school. I loved my professors. I wanted to graduate with a BYU finance degree. I definitely felt like they wanted me gone, but I wasn't going to leave."

Draughon's Instagram account had just 75 followers last Sunday, but in the past week it's exploded in popularity.

Students walk on the BYU campus in Provo on Sept. 6, 2013.
Students walk on the BYU campus in Provo on Sept. 6, 2013.
Jaren Wilkey, BYU

"Now it's at 32,000," she said Friday. "I cannot believe how many people have been so alone, and none of us knew were suffering the same way. We all felt alone, and we were all going through the same experience. I just wanted to share it in case it resonated with one person."

BYU administrators used the school's official Twitter account Thursday to release a message saying they're paying attention.

"We’ve seen the conversations this week about the Honor Code Office. We love our students and alums and how much they care about BYU. These messages are leading to constructive dialogue between students and the leadership of the Honor Code Office," it said.

Carri Jenkins, assistant to the president for university communications at BYU, said Friday that the school continued to have "constructive conversations with our students today."

She added that the Honor Code Office "does not accept anonymous reports, except where it could impact the safety of a member or members of our campus community."

Draughon said she wept when she read some of the stories now being shared on her Instagram account.

"I am stunned and so overwhelmed," she said. "I just started crying thinking about how many people felt like I did."

She said she recognizes BYU is a religious institution and it should have an honor code, but she questions whether it should have an office that is enforcing personal repentance.

Criticism of how the Honor Code Office handles allegations and violations is nothing new, but something about the Instagram stories has galvanized critics to do more than complain. Michelle Peralta Junior started a petition on asking the leaders of BYU to abandon enforcement of the honor code at the school, and Draughon shared it on her Instagram account, even though she is pursuing changes through a separate effort.

An arial view of the BYU campus in Provo.
An arial view of the BYU campus in Provo.
Jaren Wilkey, BYU

"I want the office to change," she said. "I've put a team together, and we're working on exactly what that looks like, what we're asking the president to consider within the office. We want to take a broad overview, but we're looking to take the repentance process out of the Wilkinson Center."

Former BYU football player Derik Stevenson said his worries about being punished by the Honor Code Office kept him from seeking help with his addiction to pain medication. He said he came to BYU without ever having tasted alcohol, but he developed an addiction to pain medication after a football injury, and the fear of losing his education and career kept him from seeking help.

"I was worried about getting kicked out of school," Stevenson said. "It kept me from getting help."

Stevenson knew first-hand of what he called the punitive nature of the office, as he'd been arrested for discharging a handgun when he and another man were attacked by a group of men.

"I shot the gun in the air to try and scare them off," he said. "I got arrested for having a gun and for discharging it."

The Honor Code Office put him on probation, but he said the process that he endured, and that he saw his teammates deal with, convinced him it was better to try and hide issues rather than seek help — physically or spiritually.

"They should be more aligned with what the LDS Church is about," he said. "They're holding students and student athletes to a much higher standard than they hold regular members to. For them to have people on staff who are investigators, who are in charge of researching students, finding out what they've done and come back and decide punishment … taking leaks from anonymous tipsters, that seems like the opposite of honor."

Olsen believes the entire experience with the office is confusing for students, as many are unsure what role honor code officials even play in the process.

"Is this a bishop? Is this a counselor? Who is this exactly?" Olsen said. "Then you start to get the feeling, this is none of those things. This is just a guy who is paid to pry, to get information about my life and then decide my fate."

The stories shared on Instagram provide a broad spectrum of experiences. Among them, tales of how expulsion derailed lives, and how often the punished student was a church member in good standing in his or her ward long before they were cleared by the Honor Code Office.

That's an experience Olsen can relate to, as he said he'd been married in the temple for a year — with a temple recommend issued by his church leaders saying he was a worthy member of the church living its gospel principles — before he was officially cleared by the school's Honor Code Office investigating him.

"I am a really proud member (of the church), and this is something that's really important to me," said Olsen, who said he was on probation for three years and dealt with a number of issues, including false accusations from a person whose identity was kept from him.

"I love what the honor code stands for," he said. "The way they enforce it, it's not Christlike. It's not in line with what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asks of us as members. Instead of asking for repentance, you're almost wanting blood."

A group has also announced plans on social media to organize a sit-in on Friday at noon to petition change. The flyer asks students to use social media to raise awareness about the issues and write letters to the school.

"We love our university and we love the gospel. This is why we protest," says the flyer, which also encourages students to bring "snacks, games and a Christ-oriented spirit" to the sit-in.

Correction: An earlier version misspelled Sidney Draughon's name as Draughton.