PROVO — Brigham Young University now has an amnesty clause.
Effective immediately, the clause shields students who report sexual assault from being investigated or disciplined for Honor Code violations at or near the time of the assault. The opening phrase of the clause is unambiguous:
"At BYU, being a victim of sexual misconduct is never a violation of the Honor Code."
Students, assault survivors and advocates hailed the move, one of 23 recommendations made by the Advisory Council on Campus Response to Sexual Assault. The reforms are comprehensive and designed to encourage survivors to report their assaults so the university can help them with an array of resources, said Julie Valentine, a BYU nursing professor whose research focuses on sexual assault.
"These are sweeping changes meant to benefit our students," said Valentine, who served on the advisory council. "That's who we did all this work for."
BYU President Kevin Worthen formed the council five months ago. He announced Wednesday the school will adopt all of the recommendations.
Valentine expressed gratitude for that decision and said the moves are important for a school owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Sexual violence violates every tenet of our religion," Valentine said. "These changes create not only the best education environment possible but help create the best spiritual environment possible."
"Because of the Advisory Council’s extremely valuable work," Worthen said in a letter to the campus, "we are in a much stronger position to help those who have suffered the traumatic effects of sexual assault and to prevent such events in the future."
Statistics show BYU has a safer campus than most, aided by an Honor Code that proscribes drugs, alcohol and extramarital sex. However, some campus procedures had a chilling effect on students who needed to report sexual misconduct.
Worthen asked the advisory council to address concerns raised by students like Madi Barney. Barney said she waited four days to report her rape to BYU's Title IX Office, which has a federal mandate to handle such complaints. Barney said she feared that office would share information gathered in its investigation with the Honor Code Office. It did. When she refused to talk with the Honor Code Office, the school placed her academic standing on hold.
Some survivors said their assailants used their knowledge of BYU's system to threaten them that if they reported an assault, the Honor Code Office would suspend or expel the survivor.
Worthen acknowledged the problem last spring and said BYU could and would do better. The advisory council's study confirmed that BYU's Title IX Office, after fully completing investigations of student reports of sexual assaults, did in some cases share information about sexual assault victims and witnesses with the Honor Code Office, university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said.
In April, Barney filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, which in August launched a federal Title IX investigation of BYU. Experts say such campus investigations are common because sexual misconduct issues are complex and OCR's application of Title IX is evolving. OCR is conducting investigations of more than 200 schools.
BYU did not wait for the results of the federal investigation, which could take years. The President's Council immediately implemented four other recommendations related to Title IX issues — BYU will hire a new, full-time Title IX coordinator, add a victim advocate, move the Title IX Office from its location next door to the Honor Code Office and ensure that information is not shared between the two unless requested by a survivor, according to a university news release.
"I read it today and I cried because I was so happy,” she said.
Barney's story gained widespread attention when she launched an online petition asking the school to create what she called an immunity clause for victims. The Care2 petition has more than 117,000 signatures.
Care2 campaigns writer Kelsey Bourgeois, who also organized a march at BYU, called the petition a success.
"I’m thrilled to learn BYU has heard the Care2 petition loud and clear, and that it will do the right thing by granting amnesty to survivors of sexual assault," she said.
The amnesty clause may be altered. It must be reviewed by the student, faculty and administrative advisory councils as part of the process of becoming permanent university policy.
Increased reporting is the "Holy Grail" of sexual assault intervention and prevention, one national expert, David Lisak, told the council during a campus visit.
All of the changes BYU is making are designed to encourage student survivors to come forward, said advisory council chairwoman Jan Scharman.
Scharman is BYU's Student Life Vice President and has responsibility for the Title IX Office and Honor Code Office. In addition to the physical move of the Title IX Office, the new coordinator will report directly to Scharman instead of reporting to the dean of students, as the Honor Code Office does.
Scharman said those changes remove any perception that the offices will work together. The only information they will share is about students who commit sexual assault. In those cases, the Title IX Office, when it determines a student is guilty, will share its report with the Honor Code Office — with the names of victims and witnesses redacted.
"The big change we are hoping for is that we will encourage more victims to report," Scharman said. "Sexual assault is severely under-reported by victims. If they don't report, we can't help them."
BYU immediately began its search for a new, full-time Title IX coordinator — Jenkins said the job description for the new position was sent to the human resources office on Wednesday.
Scharman shared more about the amnesty clause and the advisory council's work in a Q&A published in the daily faculty newsletter on Wednesday morning.
"Our top priority is the safety and well-being of our students," Worthen wrote in his campus letter. "This is particularly true for those who have been the victims of sexual assault. They have been through a devastating experience, and they are looking for our help and support. We have an obligation not only to provide that support, both emotional and spiritual, but also to create an environment where sexual assault is eliminated."
Worthen, Scharman and Valentine said work on the issue will continue.
"We do not have all the answers to this problem," Worthen said.
The LDS Church condemned sexual assault in a statement in May when Worthen created the advisory council.
"Let us be perfectly clear," church leaders said in the statement. "There is no tolerance for sexual assault at BYU or in the church. Assault of any kind is a serious criminal offense and we support its reporting, investigation and prosecution to the full extent of the law. Victims of assault or recipients of unwelcome sexual attention should be treated with sensitivity, compassion and respect, and should feel that those to whom they disclose the assault are committed to helping them deal with the trauma they have experienced."
Contributing: Andrew Adams