PROVO — BYU has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual violence and will improve the way it responds to students who report sexual assaults to its Title IX office, university President Kevin Worthen said in a video released Wednesday morning.
"First and foremost, our primary concern is the safety and well-being of our students," he said. "That's particularly true for those who have been victims of sexual assault. They've been through a traumatic experience. They're vulnerable. They're looking for help, and we ought to provide that."
The university posted the video on its website and distributed it via Twitter and YouTube three hours before protesters planned to rally at the front of BYU's campus and deliver a petition calling for change with more than 90,000 signatures.
Worthen said the school's honor code promotes a safe environment and contributes to student well-being, but some student victims have complained the school's Honor Code Office investigates them when their report of sexual assault includes information that may violate the honor code contract they signed when they enrolled, such as use of alcohol or drugs, or allowing a member of the opposite sex into their room.
Worthen, a lawyer who formerly served as the dean of BYU's law school, said he recognizes the tension between victims' reports and the honor code. Victims say they fear reporting a crime when the investigation might uncover honor code violations that could lead to suspension or expulsion.
"There are some victims of sexual assault, those who are vulnerable already and already may feel like they don't want to come in and they don't want to talk about it.
"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."
The video is in a question-and-answer format, and BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins asked Worthen what he would say to students who are victims of sexual assault.
"First and foremost, I would say, the victim of sexual assault is never responsible for the sexual assault," Worthen said. "You're not at fault. And then I would say, Come in and get the help provided."
Worthen announced Monday that BYU had launched a study to review its Title IX and honor code policies and the university's structural organization.
He said the school will look specifically at whether or how information is shared and under what conditions, and at the relationship between the Title IX office and the Honor Code Office.
"We're not perfect," Worthen said. "We don't claim to be perfect. We can be better. This is important enough that we owe it to the community to say, 'This is the very best that we can do, and we've thought it through, and we've studied it through, and here's the changes that we're going to make.'"
Worthen said BYU is taking the issues seriously.
"We have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual violence and perpetrators of sexual violence, period."
He said he hopes that by the end of the study, BYU would have a system that earns the trust of victims of sexual assault, one strong enough that it will reduce the number of sexual assaults on campus.