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Brigham Young Students Claim University Punished Rape Victims For Reporting


The Honor Code is a big deal at Brigham Young University in Utah. The school is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the code outlines expectations for student conduct - live a chaste life, abstain from alcohol. Now some women at BYU say the policies are being used to punish students who come forward to report sexual assaults, and they say that's a violation of federal protections known as Title IX. Whittney Evans of member station KUER in Salt Lake City has the story.

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: Brigham Young University sophomore Madeline Macdonald's story begins the week before finals last year with a match on the popular dating app Tinder.

MADELINE MACDONALD: He said, like, hey, like, let's go out, like, just get hot chocolate, meet up, like, just make sure we're real people. And I was like OK, I've only got like 20 minutes. And we're going to have to stay right near campus and, like, go to a public area - all that stuff, right?

EVANS: Macdonald says the man who was not a BYU student picked her up from her dorm, drove to a park in the mountains and sexually assaulted her. Unclear about her options, MacDonald says she went to the women services center on campus and was referred to the Title IX office. There she was given a document that said her case would be handed over to the responsible administrator, which for BYU students is the Honor Code office.

MACDONALD: And I was terrified because I was like if they decide that I wasn't sexually assaulted, if they say that there isn't enough evidence or they side against me, I had just confessed what they would say was consensual stuff.

EVANS: The Honor Code can be used to place students on academic probation, suspension or expulsion for premarital sex, dress code violations and drinking alcohol. Macdonald's Honor Code investigation was eventually dropped, but she says her case is evidence that the university's Title XI office and BYU's Honor Code office work hand-in-hand, despite BYU officials' claims that the two are separate.

Another BYU student Madi Barney reported her rape directly to the local the police department instead of BYU. But a sheriff's deputy turned over her police report, including the details of her rape kit to the Honor Code office.

MADI BARNEY: I don't understand how any human being could like read something like that and instead of being, like, oh, my gosh, we have to help this girl, they instead only called me in to let me know that I was probably going to be punished.

EVANS: The Honor Code office told Barney she couldn't register for classes until she cooperated with the school to address her Honor Code violations.

BARNEY: If I had not reported the rape, they would have never, ever known about these alleged violations.

EVANS: Barney's alleged attacker has been charged with a crime and is awaiting trial. She's filed a federal complaint against BYU's Title XI office claiming the school handled her case inappropriately. School spokesperson Carri Jenkins says BYU is reviewing its policies.

CARRI JENKINS: We absolutely want to look at what's caused the concern within some of being fearful of reporting being a victim of sexual assault. And if we can do something to change that, we want to make that change.

EVANS: The federal complaint against BYU is worth investigating, says Laurie Levenson. She's a professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

LAURIE LEVENSON: I think the allegations would be that BYU is not complying with Title IX law because they do not have a fair and open practice for victims of sexual assault to come forward without retaliation.

EVANS: Levenson who is a former federal prosecutor says Title IX was supposed to prevent sex discrimination and stop schools from retaliating against women who report wrongdoing.

LEVENSON: You know, they've been caught and they've come forward and said, well, we didn't do it to harass her, but the consequences are the same.

BOZ TCHIVIDJIAN: Hopefully, it's a teachable moment for all higher education institutions, religious or not.

EVANS: Boz Tchividjian is executive director of an organization called GRACE which did a year-long investigation into another religious school, Bob Jones University. The investigation found students there were often punished after reporting a sexual assault. The school has since separated the discipline and counseling offices. That's what Tchividjian would like to see happen at BYU.

TCHIVIDJIAN: To once again reaffirm the fact that sexual assault victims are victims of violent, serious crimes and we need to respond to them in that manner.

EVANS: BYU's promise to review its policies is not satisfying to student Madi Barney. She's chosen to leave the school.

BARNEY: They need to take accountability for what they did to me and for what they did to the other women who have spoken out.

EVANS: And Barney says to victims of sexual assault who haven't spoken out because they're afraid they'll be subject to the same disciplinary action that she was. For NPR News, I'm Whittney Evans in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KCPW reporter Whittney Evans shares Utah news stories with Utah Public Radio. Whittney holds a degree in communication with an emphasis in print journalism from Morehead State University in Kentucky.
Whittney Evans
Whittney Evans grew up southern Ohio and has worked in public radio since 2005. She has a communications degree from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, where she learned the ropes of reporting, producing and hosting. Whittney moved to Utah in 2009 where she became a reporter, producer and morning host at KCPW. Her reporting ranges from the hyper-local issues affecting Salt Lake City residents, to state-wide issues of national interest. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the guitar and getting to know the breathtaking landscape of the Mountain West.