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This Mormon college offers amnesty to victims of sexual assault

Institute  of Religion building at Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista, Va.  The university has adopted an amnesty provision for students who come forward to report sexual assault that applies if the crimes happened in connection with any violations of the school’s honor code (Photo by Jonathan McBride/Courtesy of Southern Virginia University )

As Brigham Young University reexamines its approach to investigating reports of sexual assault, amid an outcry that students who reported assaults have been punished for violating the school’s strict honor code, a small liberal arts college in the Blue Ridge Mountains could emerge as a model for the future.

Southern Virginia University, in Buena Vista, Va., is not owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, like BYU. But it is operated by Mormons, and nearly all of its students and faculty are Mormon. It also has a similar honor code, which forbids premarital sex, alcohol or drug use. A year ago, the school began offering amnesty  for honor code violations to encourage students to report sexual misconduct.

The federal government stepped up enforcement of Title IX in 2011, bringing fresh attention to guidelines meant to protect students from sexual harassment at federally funded educational institutions. The shift caused many religiously affiliated universities to grapple with how to adhere to the law, and keep students safe, without undermining their faith-inspired codes of conduct.

“Amnesty is emerging as a preferred practice,” said Brett A. Sokolow, executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators, a professional group for employees that oversee compliance with the law.

The shift has been slow, he said, for religious schools that value their independence from the federal government and see their honor codes as protecting students from risky behaviors.

Northwest University in Kirkland, WA, and Life Pacific College in San Dimas, CA are also among the growing number of Christian schools that have written new amnesty provisions in recent years.

“We are an unashamedly conservative institution and have a very conservative code of conduct,” said Rick Engstrom, dean of student development at Northwest  “But we should never ever assume that sexual violence is not taking place on our campus.”

Only schools that receive federal funding are subject to the laws. But at least one school that does not take federal funds, Patrick Henry College, an evangelical Christian school in Purcellville, Va., also moved toward amnesty recently.

Following press coverage about how it mishandled sexual assault or harassment cases, the college updated its sexual conduct policy to include an “immunity for complainants” clause, which says, “protecting the safety of students and providing proper care for the complainant will take priority over administering disciplinary action for these violations.” The college still retained the right to impose discipline related to honor code violations, though.

At BYU, soul-searching started last spring when sophomore Madi Barney spoke out about how reporting a rape to local police led to a campus investigation of her own compliance with the school’s strict honor code. Even before she called police, she said, she was intimidated by the honor code she had signed.

“I was raped, and I waited four days to report because I was so terrified about my standing at BYU,” she wrote in a petition she posted on-line, asking for  victims of sexual violence at the school to have an “immunity clause from the honor code so they don’t feel afraid to report.”

Since then, more than 117,000 people have signed her petition; more than a dozen students have come forward with similar stories of investigation or punishment by the university; and the federal government launched an investigation into the university’s handling of sexual assault.

Three weeks ago, a former student at Brigham Young University campus in Hawaii filed a lawsuit claiming that the honor code prevented her from seeking help when she was repeatedly sexually assaulted at the school.

BYU is awaiting an internal review from an advisory council about how it responds to reports of sexual assault. The council is expected to report back with recommendations for changes this fall.  “Our primary focus is the safety and well being of our students,” said BYU President Kevin J. Worthen in a video posted to the school’s web site.

The pastoral campus of Southern Virginia University was also the site of an investigation by the federal government. In 2015,  the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights looked into a complaint made by a gay student, alleging harassment by the provost based on sexual orientation. The investigation cleared the school but identified some practices that were out of compliance with some Title IX guidelines.

In response, the school reorganized its process for responding to sexual misconduct reports by housing responsibility for Title IX compliance in the Office of the President rather than fielding reports in the Office of Student Life, which also handles honor code violations. The university also published an amnesty provision and made a major push to educate students about how to recognize and respond to sexual harassment.

Deidra Dryden, a popular administrator and tennis coach, was put in the role of Title IX coordinator.

She and her deputy have spent a lot of time educating students about consent and healthy relationships, she said. They talk with groups of students in the dorms and visit classes.

“It can be a tough crowd sometimes, because it’s a difficult topic,” Dryden said.

They teach students how to say ‘no’ to unwanted sexual advances and to understand when someone else is saying, ‘no.’ And they give them a chance to practice with a long list of phrases, such as “I’m done for the night,” “I’m not okay with that,” or “I’m not ready for this.”

They talk about healthy relationships, and red flags for trouble, including controlling behavior or stalking, both on-line and in person.

In the year since the amnesty provision was created and the Title IX office began its outreach campaign, the small university with 700 students has received 12 complaints of sexual misconduct. That’s up from four the previous year.

Dryden said the increase is a good sign that students are feeling less afraid to talk to them.

“If you have any kind of barrier to reporting, you are not protecting students,” she said.

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