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BYU rape controversy: Could honor code 'amnesty' be a solution?

Local police have joined calls for Brigham Young University to revise its honor code policies to grant leniency to sexual assault victims. A school with similar Mormon values could offer a possible path forward. 

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    Brigham Young University Academic Vice President Brent Webb speaks with protesters who stand in solidarity with rape victims on the campus during a sexual assault awareness demonstration, in Provo, Utah.
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Brigham Young University is weighing new practices for dealing with sexual assault without compromising its core values, as local police have now joined the calls to revise university policies toward sexual assault victims.

Complaints about how BYU, a Utah university owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), handles rape investigations began after a BYU sophomore shared an allegation of rape at an April 7 campus event for rape awareness. Madi Barney, who has since filed a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights, said she had been having problems with college administrators ever since she reported her rape to police and the report was forwarded to the BYU Honor Code office.

Local police have said predators could use the school's honor code, which requires students to abstain from drugs, smoking, alcohol, and extramarital sex, as leverage to prevent victims from seeking help. The concern is that a student who reports being sexually assaulted (perhaps while drinking or taking drugs) may risk punishment or even expulsion from college for a violation of the school's honor code.

“If you happen to know that the victim you’ve chosen attends an institution where there are serious repercussions for engaging in any sexual activity, that’s an obvious pressure point,” Provo Police Sgt. Brian Taylor told the Associated Press.

One possible solution comes from Southern Virginia University, where 90 percent of the students and faculty are Latter-day Saints, though it is not owned by the church itself. The university's honor code, like BYU's, requires chastity before marriage, abstinence from drugs, alcohol, and smoking, and modest clothing.

The school has spent the last year changing its policies for sexual assault, after the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights asked the school to improve its compliance with Title IX as part of an unrelated federal investigation in 2015, the Roanoke Times reported. 

The school created a Title IX office and selected Deidra Dryden, the school's former Senior Woman Administrator for athletics (who had also coached tennis and taught math), as the Title IX director. Along with four student interns, Ms. Dryden spent the past school year conducting trainings about sexual assault and healthy relationships for students and staff, Tad Walch and Eric Schulzke reported for the Deseret News.

The new policy prevents the Title IX office from sharing information with the Office of Student Life, which handles honor code violations, and it includes a provision granting amnesty to students who report rape

"To encourage reporting of Title IX violations, anyone who reports sexual misconduct, either as a witness or complainant, will not be subject to disciplinary action by the University for their own personal use of alcohol or drugs at or near the time of the incident," according to the university website.

Some say that while sexual assault should be reported and prosecuted, an amnesty policy mocks the ideals of the honor code because these students were admitted to a competitive school because they agreed to abstain from drugs, alcohol, and premarital sex.

"If these young women are sincere about fulfilling their contract to obey the Honor Code, why are they trying to evade taking responsibility for their actions?" wrote one commenter on the Deseret News site. "They certainly, and justly, want the people that attacked them to be held responsible for what they did. Why are they somehow exempt from being responsible for their actions?"

Southern Virginia has consciously decided that reporting – and hopefully preventing – sexual assault is worth that risk. 

"We're not naive enough to think that couldn't cause problems, but when you weigh the two out, it's better we feel to take away the barriers to reporting," Dryden told the Deseret News.

The question of how to support sexual assault victims without enabling those who would game the system is not unique to BYU or even the Latter-day Saint community. Neither is the problem of a prospective rapist acting with the knowledge that a victim could suffer for trying to press charges.

"It's not a situation that's unique to BYU. It's not even unique to college campuses, it's something that we've been dealing with for decades in local law enforcement," Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault Director Alana Kindness told Utah's KSL News. "It's an opportunity to recognize there might be some unintended consequences of a policy that originally was designed to help support students." 

BYU officials say they have already spoken with representatives from Southern Virginia about its new procedures. They are considering whether similar changes would be appropriate at a church-owned school that attracts competitive students partly because of its strict code of conduct. 

"That's something that's on the table for us," BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins told the Deseret News. "We've begun looking at these other schools with amnesty clauses and what they do."

Would a solution such as Southern Virginia's satisfy the victims who say the policy has hurt their quest for justice? Ms. Barney said her goal is to leave women like her with a path to report without fear of punishment.  

“I’m not attacking BYU ... I’m not saying throw out the whole honor code," Ms. Barney told the Guardian. "You just need to add one small clause, which is common sense.”

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