Brigham Young University will no longer punish sexual assault victims for violating the school’s stringent honor code, the university’s president announced today. The Mormon university was the target of nationwide criticism earlier this year when a number of rape survivors came forward with stories of being investigated by BYU’s Honor Code Office after they had reported their rapes to the school’s Title IX office. BYU convened an advisory council of professors and administrators to review its sexual assault policies and practices, and on Wednesday the school released the council’s report. BYU’s president, Kevin J. Worthen, promised to implement all 23 of the report’s recommendations, which include not only amnesty for sexual assault victims but also an expansion of BYU’s Title IX office, the creation of a victim advocate position, and enhanced training for administrators who investigate sexual assaults.
BYU’s inadequate and wrong-headed response to sexual assaults became national news in April, when a student named Madi Barney started an online petition asking BYU to “stop punishing victims of sexual assault.” Barney reported her off-campus rape to the police a few days after it occurred last September. After a sheriff’s deputy leaked her police report to BYU’s Honor Code Office, the office launched an investigation of Barney and blocked her from enrolling in any more classes for the duration of the investigation. Other students also claim that they were investigated for honor code violations after reporting their assaults to the school’s Title IX office, as Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick detailed in April. BYU’s honor code bans drinking, drugs, coffee, tight clothing, gambling, “homosexual behavior,” and simply being in the bedroom of anyone of the opposite sex, which means that a woman who was drinking or in her attacker’s room at the time of her assault could be found guilty of violating the honor code. (Meanwhile, a male victim of rape could, depending on the circumstances, be found guilty of violating the honor code just by virtue of being gay or bisexual.)
Granting amnesty to sexual assault victims is the only way for BYU to send the message to its students that rape is a more serious offense than, say, wearing short shorts or enjoying a latte. BYU’s policy elicited outrage because it, as my colleague Christina Cauterucci wrote in April, “promotes the idea that survivors deserved their sexual victimization by violating the code, enforcing a culture of shame and self-blame.” If BYU commits to the 23 recommendations made by its advisory council, it will go a long way toward repairing the breach of trust its history of investigating victims created. And if more victims come forward to report their rapes—as they probably will now that they know they won’t be investigated for it—BYU might even end up catching the rapists who actually deserve punishment.