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BYU changes policy that investigated rape victims for violating Honor Code

SALT LAKE CITY -- Students at Brigham Young University who report sexual assault will no longer be investigated for possible violations of the strict honor code that bans drinking and premarital sex, the Mormon-owned school announced Wednesday in a major reversal to a practice that drew widespread scrutiny.

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The college accepted several recommendations made by a faculty council that reviewed how sexual assault cases are handled. The inquiry began in May after female students and alumni spoke out against the school opening honor code investigations of students who report abuses. 

The Title IX Office will not share information with the Honor Code Office about the complainant without the victim’s consent and it will also create a separate location for the Title IX Office and the Honor Code Office, effective immediately, CBS affiliate KUTV reports. BYU will also adopt an amnesty clause, which means “being a victim of sexual misconduct is never a violation of the Honor Code” at BYU. In a tweet, BYU explained the process it went through to come up with an amnesty policy, which included reviewing amnesty policies from more than 75 other universities.

Victims advocates said the practice discourages reporting of sexual violence, which is already underreported on campuses nationwide. 

Two former BYU students who went public with their experiences said they are mostly pleased with the upcoming changes at the school, where students must agree to an honor code forbidding premarital sex, drug use and drinking.

“By having an amnesty clause, we hopefully will let them know that they should not hold any self-blame, that we are here to provide help to them,” said Julie Valentine, a nursing professor who was on the council issuing the recommendations. “It also helps educate the whole community and the campus that we can’t have victim blaming, that we need to reach out and offer support.”

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The school remains under investigation by federal and state officials. 

This news comes months after CBS affiliate KUTV broke the story in April about a woman who reported she was raped on BYU campus, then received an email from BYU’s Title IX office stating she may have also violated the school’s honor code. Since that time, concerns about how BYU’s honor code and Title IX office handled reports from victims of sexual assault have been investigated and scrutinized at a national level, KUTV reports. 

Madi Barney, who came forward as a BYU student and rape survivor, said she felt “re-victimized” and launched a petition stating people who have been raped shouldn’t be investigated for potential honor code violations. More than 117,600 supporters have signed the petition. BYU also is under federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights for how it handles sexual assault reports.

“Our top priority has always been the safety and well-being of our students,” BYU President Kevin J, Worthen wrote in the statement to students, faculty and staff on Wednesday. “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 emotionally and spiritually, but also to create an environment where sexual assault is eliminated.”

In May, BYU President Kevin J. Worthen put together an Advisory Council on Campus Response to Sexual Assault in order to identify changes that BYU could make to eliminate sexual assault on campus and find a better way to handle the reporting process for victims of sexual assault. It also requested input from the public about what could be improved.

U.S. education officials are looking at how BYU handles sexual assault reports. Utah’s Department of Public Safety, meanwhile, is investigating whether university police officers inappropriately shared information on sexual assault cases with the honor code office.

The faculty council didn’t look into the police allegations but found that the federal Title IX office on campus sometimes shared victims’ names and details of their assaults with the honor code office after the investigations were complete, Valentine said.

The only information that can be shared now is about a perpetrator who is found to be guilty of sexual assault, she said. In those cases, the victim’s name will be redacted so only the suspect faces honor code discipline.

The school also will hire a victim advocate to provide confidential counseling for victims who want to discuss their options, Valentine said. Students previously were given a handout explaining their options but didn’t have somebody to talk to, she said.

The school will replace a part-time Title IX coordinator with a full-time coordinator. The Title IX office will be moved to a different area of campus far from the honor code office.

Students were informed of the findings and changes Wednesday in an email from BYU President Keven Worthen, Valentine said.

Madeline MacDonald, 20, came forward after she said she was investigated by the honor code office following her report of being sexually assaulted on a 2014 date. Though she was cleared, the two-month review made her feel like a target rather than a victim.

“Within the bounds of how BYU already works, they’ve made a lot of amazing changes,” MacDonald said about the school’s recommendations. “But we’re not done.”

The report on the investigation’s findings didn’t address the way Mormon bishops handle students telling them about sexual assault. MacDonald said that’s a key issue because bishops determine whether students are in good standing with the faith and therefore the university.

The report acknowledges that students said they had “varied” experiences reporting sexual assaults to local church leaders. It says the university doesn’t control that but will share the concerns with church officials.

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