Protesters decry BYU Honor Code investigations for sexual assault survivors 10

Protesters hold up signs and wear gags to symbolize the silencing of sexual assault victims on Wednesday, April 20, 2016 at Brigham Young University's campus in Provo. Protesters gathered at the edge of campus and then marched to the administration building to deliver a petition urging BYU not to launch Honor Code investigations against victims of sexual assault. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

Brigham Young University has made changes related to how it handles the reporting of sexual assault cases and is accepting 23 recommendations made by its Advisory Council on Campus Response to Sexual Assault.

The upcoming changes come after months of study by an internal committee and outside public pressure for BYU to change how it handles reports of sexual assault and sexual assault victims.

In an announcement made by BYU President Kevin J Worthen and emailed to students and faculty Wednesday, BYU will adopt an amnesty clause and "ensure that, unless the health or safety of others is at risk, the Title IX Office does not share information with the Honor Code Office about the complainant without the complainant’s consent."

Because the clause is a policy change, it still needs to be reviewed by the student, faculty and administrative advisory councils before it becomes policy, although it will be practiced in the meantime. 

The drafted amnesty statement would extend amnesty to witnesses, assure that the names of students who report a sexual assault are not given to the Honor Code Office and would be limited to "at or near the time of the incident." The clause also calls for leniency for other honor code violations not directly related to the assault, but discovered during the investigation. 

"Such violations will generally be handled so that the student can remain in school while appropriately addressing these concerns," a policy of the draft reads.

Other recommendations will be implemented this fall.

BYU also plans to employ a full-time Title IX coordinator to replace its previous part-time Title IX coordinator position, employ a victim advocate/confidential advisor, and create a physical space to house the Title IX Office in a location separate from the Honor Code Office.

The recommendations also include providing a budget for ongoing training for Title IX staff, developing written protocols on victim interview techniques and highly publicizing an education campaign about resources for survivors of sexual assault and violence. The council's report also asks for serious consideration for the creation of a separate reporting line so the Title IX Office doesn't report to the same administrator as the Honor Code Office.

Information will be shared with the Honor Code Office in the case that the respondent, not the victim, is found responsible for violating the university’s sexual misconduct policy. In those instances, the names of survivors, witnesses and complainants will be redacted. 

BYU received national criticism this spring for its handling of sexual assault cases after students reported they were investigated for possible violations that occurred around their attacks by the university’s Honor Code Office after they reported their assaults. More than 117,000 people have signed a petition asking for honor code amnesty for survivors when they report a sexual assault.

“For many years, sexual misconduct complaints for BYU students were handled by the Honor Code Office and for BYU employees by the Equal Opportunity Office, following university policy at the time,” the report reads.

Before 2011, Mike Orme, BYU's general counsel, was the Title IX coordinator. That summer, Sarah Westerberg, an associate dean of students, was appointed to the position. The following summer, Melba Latu, an honor code counselor, was named a Title IX investigator for cases involving students. 

"Initially Latu retained her position as an Honor Code counselor and maintained an Honor Code caseload while simultaneously investigating Title IX reports," the report reads. 

In 2013, after additional Title IX requirements were created, Latu became a full-time employee of the Title IX Office and moved from the Honor Code Office. 

The report also found that BYU gave Title IX duties to employees with other responsibilities, including individuals in human resources, athletics, the BYU University Police and to Honor Code Office employees.

"Honor Code Office counselors/investigators were asked to investigate Title IX reports as well as Honor Code cases," the report reads. 

The two offices also shared the same office location until 2013. However, the associate dean of students, who is also the Title IX coordinator, has office space in the Dean of Students Office, next to the associate dean who has Honor Code responsibilities. The Title IX investigator office is also in the same suite. 

The honor code and Title IX offices used the same tracking system for casework that was created for honor code cases, with a firewall separating the two types of investigations. However, some honor code cases were mislabeled as Title IX cases, according to the report. In 2014, the honor code system was rewritten and the Title IX Office requested its own system, according to the report. The new system was fully operational in mid-2016.

When recent students did report sexual assault, some told the council that Title IX employees had made insensitive comments to the survivors. 

"The majority of recent victims and community members interviewed in this investigation, however, felt that the focus of the Title IX Office has been to determine if the sexual assault is a false report, with minimal focus on helping the victim," the report reads. 

BYU was placed under investigation by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for possible Title IX violations, an investigation that could take years to complete.

BYU University Police was placed under investigation by the state Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Investigation this summer for possible violations related to the reporting of sexual assault and how the department accesses and disseminates information after other Utah County law enforcement agencies noticed an abnormal trend of BYU University Police accessing their records.

BYU University Police initiated the state investigation, which the department has referred to as an audit. At the end of the investigation, findings could be reported to the Utah County Attorney’s Office for charges.

Meanwhile, BYU created an internal advisory council on its response to sexual assault. The suggestions from the group were presented to Worthen and the President’s Council.

Julie Valentine, a member of the internal advisory council and a nursing professor whose research centers on sexual assault, said there was outside pressure to quickly complete an internal investigation. But through interviewing survivors, students and experts, the council learned the question of how to improve the system and decrease sexual assaults on campus was a complex one. 

"I described it as peeling an onion," Valentine said. "We'd peel off one layer and we find out there was something else."

Other schools in the Church Educational System, which includes BYU-Hawaii, BYU-Idaho and LDS Business College, will be notified of the findings and recommendations, but Valentine said the changes are not sweeping for all the colleges. 

Valentine hopes the changes will encourage more survivors to report their assaults, which helps connect survivors with resources and prevent repeat perpetrators. 

"Today is a good day," Valentine said. "These recommendations will really make a difference to victims and also to identifying and decreasing sexual violence and domestic violence on campus, so we are looking forward to all the promise these recommendations hold."

Janet Scharman, student life vice president, said the group poured hundreds of hours individually into the report. 

Through the internal investigation, Scharman said the group learned students were confused on where they should report sexual assault and how the information was going to be used. 

"There really was very little information shared," Scharman said. 

The perception of a grander problem, Scharman said, was preventing some students from reporting. 

Braley Dodson covers health and education for the Daily Herald.

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