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Brigham Young University under fire for disciplining sexual assault victim for ‘honor code’ breach

Students on Brigham Young University campus in Provo, Utah. (Tom Smart for The Washington Post)

Students at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are accusing administrators of using its strict code of conduct against sexual assault victims.

The Mormon school is the largest religious university in America, and its students must adhere to a rigid “Honor Code” that mandates living a “chaste and virtuous life,” “clean language” and abstaining from alcohol and coffee, among other things.

In other words, premarital sex is not allowed.

The honor code has long been an essential part of campus life, but some students say that disciplinary procedures surrounding the regulations can keep sexual assault victims silent.

Madi Barney, 20, told the Huffington Post and the Salt Lake Tribune that she filed a Title IX complaint against BYU with the Department of Education on Monday.

The suit alleges that BYU put Barney on academic hold after they learned that she reported an off-campus rape to the local police in September.

Her accused rapist, 39-year-old, Nasir Seidu, has been charged with undressing her and partaking in sexual intercourse without Barney’s consent. He has told police the sex was consensual.

The Washington Post does not generally identify victims of sexual offenses, but the individual in this case has chosen to go public with her story.

According to HuffPo, Utah County Deputy Sheriff Edwin Randolph, a former women’s track coach at the school, then passed the incident’s police file on to the university, which proceeded to launch an Honor Code investigation against Barney.

“We have received information that you have been a victim of behavior that is addressed in the university Sexual Misconduct Policy,” a BYU Title IX coordinator wrote to Barney, the Tribune reported. “We have also received information that you have engaged in behavior that violates the BYU Honor Code.”

Barney’s attorney advised her not to partake in the honor code investigation because it could impact her criminal case. When she refused the school’s request, Barney said, BYU blocked her from both registering and withdrawing from classes.

“Dealing with this hostile environment has been upsetting, re-victimizing, and discouraging, to say the least,” Barney wrote on a petition with more than 87,000 signatures. “It’s clear to me that BYU is not on my side.”

Her petition calls on BYU to give immunity to sexual assault victims so that they can come forward about their experiences without fear that it will prompt a separate investigation into their own behavior.

Other students spoke to the Tribune about similar encounters with the Honor Code Office.

“My case is not unique,” Barney wrote on her petition page. “Women have been put on probation and even kicked out of school for circumstances of their rapes and sexual assaults.”

She said she initially hesitated to report her rape because she feared that it would threaten her standing at BYU.

In statement on Tuesday, BYU President Kevin Worthen recognized the “inherent tension” between the school’s Title IX and Honor Code policies.

“A victim of a sexual assault will never be referred to the Honor Code Office for being a victim of sexual assault,” Worthen said. “Sometimes in the course of an investigation, facts come to light that a victim has engaged in prior Honor Code violations.”

Barney told HuffPo that the school has not informed her of which rule she allegedly broke.

BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins told NBC News that while the university could not comment on Barney’s specific case, “I can assure you that we would never put a hold on a student’s registration because she reported her rape to the police.”

The Department of Education has not confirmed whether it received Barney’s Title IX complaint because it only acknowledges complaints for which investigations have been launched.

The incident has generated a major controversy in Utah, with front page coverage and an editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune critical of the handling of this and other cases. “Without intending to, BYU has given rapists an advantage,” said the Tribune editorial. “If a woman has crossed any of these lines, she faces a different dynamic with a potential assailant, who can essentially say, ‘I’m doing this, and if you tell anybody, we’re both going down.'”

BYU, it said, “has prospered as a university committed to strict standards of morality, and the honor code is the manifestation of that. The school backs up that commitment to students and their parents when it investigates and disciplines students for violating the code. But when a woman has suffered one of the most violent and brutal crimes imaginable, her life is already turned upside down. It is simply not defensible to make her fear the end of her college career if she speaks up so another woman won’t suffer the same fate.”

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