Report: Liberty University's Honor Code Used To Punish Victims Of Sexual Assault

Report: Liberty University's Honor Code Used To Punish Victims Of Sexual Assault
Liberty University

When the kind of parents who would send their kids to Jerry Fallwell's Liberty University send their daughters to Liberty University, they probably imagine they'll be safer there than at some heathen secular institute. After all, Liberty University is filled with Good Christians and has strict rules and an honor code with rules like "Sexual relations outside of a biblically-ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman are not permissible at Liberty University."

They would be wrong.

An extremely disturbing report from ProPublica alleges that the university has been using that same honor code, "The Liberty Way," to intimidate and punish students who are victims of sexual assault. Specifically, the school seems to have made a habit out of requiring students who report their sexual assaults to sign documents admitting to breaking the school's honor code by drinking, being alone with a member of the opposite sex, going to an off-campus party, etc., before even looking into their cases. And, when they finally do, after several months, they reportedly tell the victims their assailants have been found innocent due to a "preponderance of evidence."

In at least one case, this may have been because they got rid of the evidence, claiming it was too explicit.

[Elizabeth] Axley went in and looked through the materials. The photos with her injuries, she recalled, were no longer there. Axley said that when she asked what had happened, Bucci told her the photos had been removed because they were too "explicit."

"I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach," Axley recalled. "I had been relying on them all these months to take my evidence into account when considering my case, and it wasn't even in my file."

Violations of The Liberty Way are not handled, by the way, with a slap on the wrist. They can result in various punishments, including fines. While victims who self-report violations as part of reporting a sexual or physical assault are not supposed to be punished, according to the Liberty Way Honor Code, they have been discouraged from reporting by faculty who told them that they very well could be.

The RA, Axley said, told her not to report it, saying Axley could be found to have violated the school's prohibition against drinking and fraternizing with the opposite sex.

Instead, the RA offered to pray with Axley.

"I was really confused," recalled Axley. "They were making it seem like I had done something wrong." [...]

In the fall of 2013, Diane Stargel sought the help of the university's mental health counselors, telling the counselor she met with that she'd been raped by another student at a party off-campus. Stargel recalled that the counselor listened and then asked her to sign a "victim notice" that warned she could be found to have broken the Liberty Way if she chose to move forward. Terrified of losing her scholarship, Stargel signed the paper and did not formally report being assaulted. "I feel like Liberty bullied me into silence after what happened to me," said Stargel. "I've always regretted that I never got my day in court. But at least now I can stand up and say, 'Yeah, that happened to me.'"

Amanda Stevens also remembers being warned she could be fined for having violated the Liberty Way. After she reported being raped to the school's Title IX office in April 2015, Stevens recalled that a school official listed her potential infractions: drinking (though she had not been drinking at the time of the assault), having premarital sex and being alone with a man on campus.

Some students interviewed said they were also discouraged from going to the police, and if not that, simply not informed they had the option (which the law requires the school to do). In one case a victim was told that if she reported her case to the police, the Title IX office wouldn't be able to investigate her claim, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Even after criticism of the school's handling of sexual assault started blowing up online this year, the school maintained a policy of both ignoring it and trying to suppress it, according to a former faculty member who says he was fired for trying to push them to do something about it.

While Liberty University's alleged conduct is appalling, it's not even remotely surprising in a patriarchal culture like that, where it is frequently considered a woman's job to keep men from sinning. To the kind of people who believe that crap, sexual assault is simply the end result of a woman failing to do that. That is why they are more concerned about making the female students sign papers acknowledging that they broke the school's honor code than they are with doing something about the fact that they were sexually assaulted. In such a belief system, said assaults wouldn't have happened if the girls had not "sinned" and led those poor men into temptation. Therefore, in such patriarchal cultures, they don't think they have to do anything about them.

"Historically, and based on the cases you presented to me, I do not believe Liberty has a conception of sexual assault that is consistent with criminal law, and certainly not with federal civil rights and campus safety," said S. Daniel Carter, who helped write a law governing how universities that receive federal funding handle sexual assault cases.

Unfortunately for Liberty, they don't get to have their own conception of sexual assault, just like no one gets to have their own conception of murder or insider trading. Sexual assault is a crime whether they think it is or not. While no criminal charges are being pressed, over a dozen former students have brought a lawsuit against the school for not doing anything about their sexual assaults, making it "difficult or impossible" for students to report, and alleging that the "public and repeated retaliation against women who did report their victimization" made the school a hostile environment for anyone who did choose to report.

Given that the school repeatedly refused to respond to ProPublica's inquiries, no one can know if they are planning on actually doing something about this or not. A cynical person might assume "no." Until they figure something out, however, female students might want to get the hell out of there.


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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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