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Virginia’s senators call for federal investigation into Liberty University over sexual misconduct claims

Protesters call for a third-party audit of the handling of sexual assault cases on Liberty University's campus in Lynchburg, Va., on Nov. 4. (Kendall Warner/News & Advance/AP)
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Virginia’s senators called for an investigation into Liberty University over the school’s handling of sexual misconduct claims.

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) said Wednesday he was deeply troubled by a ProPublica story describing women’s experiences at the private evangelical school. “Recent reports only underscore the need for federal policymakers to improve transparency, consistency, and accountability at our institutions of higher learning,” he said in a written statement. Liberty’s leaders should act quickly to prioritize the needs of survivors, he said, and it would be appropriate for the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights to look into the school’s procedures for dealing with sexual assault cases.

A dozen women sued the university this summer, claiming the school violated federal Title IX law prohibiting discrimination based on sex at schools that receive federal funding, failing to help them and making the campus more dangerous.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D) also urged the Education Department to take action. “Any campus policy that deters or discourages a survivor of sexual assault from speaking out and seeking justice is wrong,” he said in a written statement. “Students who bravely speak out deserve to be heard and to have their claims taken seriously.”

Lawsuit claims Liberty University mishandled sexual assault claims

A Liberty spokesman responded in an emailed statement: “Liberty University has been very clear about how seriously it is taking the allegations made in the Jane Doe lawsuit but these allegations, some twenty years old, should not give the misimpression that Liberty University isn’t fully compliant with all laws with regard to its title IX policies and procedures today.

“Nonetheless, the university is conducting an independent review of its processes to determine if any policies or procedures need to be modified.” The university invites the senators to visit campus and discuss their concerns with university leaders, he said. “We hope the Senators’ comments do not represent an unhelpful politicization of such a serious issue.”

Groups of students and alumni have asked the school to do more to support victims of sexual misconduct. Last week, the student-led group Justice for Janes held a rally and prayed for change while the board of trustees met on campus.

Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast who testified against Larry Nassar, the former Team USA doctor convicted of numerous sexual assaults, joined the rally and spoke to the crowd of supporters. She met with Liberty’s president, Jerry Prevo, for more than an hour, and the board later announced changes. Trustees promised an “independent and comprehensive review” of Title IX policies and processes, and Prevo said they would not wait for the results of that investigation to initiate change. The university will install blue-light emergency call boxes on campus, as well as up to a thousand security cameras, Prevo announced.

Afterward, Denhollander expressed her disappointment with those steps on social media.

The Justice for Janes campus-reform group also expressed disappointment with the university’s actions, calling for a more holistic and public audit.

“It appears to me and to many others in the campaign that they are throwing us a bone, hoping we will be satisfied with this,” said Daniel Harris, 21, a senior from Loudoun County who founded the Justice for Janes group. “We will continue to fight.”