SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Federal education officials have launched an investigation of how Brigham Young University handles reports of sexual assault — the latest fallout from female students and alumni speaking out against the Mormon-owned school’s practice of opening honor code investigations of students who report abuses.
BYU said in a news release that it found out Thursday it was joining a list of more than 200 schools that are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for sexual violence investigations. University officials said the probe stems from a report filed this spring, but they declined to provide more specifics.
The BYU investigation was opened on Aug. 4 looking into sexual harassment and sexual violence and retaliation, U.S. Department of Education press secretary Dorie Turner Nolt said.
The results could threaten federal funding and BYU’s ability to provide federal financial aid to students.
The Utah Department of Public Safety is already investigating whether campus police properly report sexual assault cases.
The scrutiny comes as the school’s athletic department jockeys to become an expansion member of the Big 12 conference, a lucrative Power Five conference that is considering many schools who want to join it.
On Monday, an LGBTQ advocacy group sent a letter to the commissioner of the Big 12 urging the conference to remove BYU from consideration for membership because it says the school has discriminatory policies. BYU officials say LGBT people are welcome at the school.
BYU is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. All students must agree to abide by the honor code and violators can be expelled or otherwise punished. The code, which was created by students in 1949, prohibits such things as “sexual misconduct,” or “obscene or indecent conduct or expressions.” As it is currently written, reporting students could also be investigated for how much sexual contact they consented to before the assault
BYU has created an advisory council of faculty members to examine its sexual assault policies.
Janet Scharman, the vice president of student life who is leading the internal review, said in a statement that the emphasis is on supporting students and understanding federal guidelines for handling sexual assault reports.
“We take any report of sexual assault extremely seriously, with our first priority being the welfare and safety of our students. Our goal in every situation is to give students the support that they need and safeguard their educational environment.”
This spring, dozens of BYU students, alumni and others gathered at the campus entrance to present petition signatures to BYU’s president, calling on the university to give victims immunity from honor code violations committed in the lead-up to a sexual assault.
Former student Madi Barney said she received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights informing her that her report triggered the investigation. Barney said she was sexually assaulted and then told that she is being investigated by the honor code after a copy of her confidential police report was handed over to her school.
The Associated Press doesn’t normally identify possible victims of sex crimes, but Barney has said she wants her name to be used so she can help change the policy.
Barney said she hopes the federal investigation spurs real change and prevents the school from just talking about what they’re going to do. She thinks the university study is just designed to make it look like the school is doing something and make people forget.
“I’m glad this is going to put a new kind of pressure on them,” Barney said. “Federal pressure is a lot more than just me and a thousand other girls talking about it. They need federal pressure because they think they are above the law.”
The other Utah schools under investigation by the Department of Education are the University of Utah and Westminster College in Salt Lake City.