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Poll: More than half of Utahns disapprove of how BYU handles sex assault, want amnesty for victims

Published June 20, 2016 11:05 am

Tribune Poll BYU Assaults by The Salt Lake Tribune

Reaction • The school's response, however, hasn't altered most Utahns' opinions of the Mormon university.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Many Utahns are critical of how Brigham Young University has handled sexual-assault complaints, a new poll shows, and more than half want the private university to adopt an amnesty clause to shield victims from school discipline.

More than a dozen victims have come forward in recent weeks and said they were investigated and faced school sanctions for Honor Code violations after they reported being sexually assaulted, allegations that have brought national attention to the school owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its Honor Code includes a dress code and bans alcohol, drugs and premarital sex, among other restrictions.

Fifty-five percent of respondents disapprove of the school's handling of sexual-assault complaints, according to a survey conducted between June 2 and June 8 for The Salt Lake Tribune.

A similar number — 52 percent — believe BYU should give victims immunity from school punishment if they were breaking rules before a sexual assault.

Forty percent of Mormon respondents support adoption of an amnesty policy. Among respondents who identified as non-Mormon, 64 percent approve of amnesty, with support rising to 73 percent among people who reported no religious affiliation.

More than half the respondents from ages 18 through 64 back amnesty, with 46 percent of those age 65 and older agreeing.

One respondent, 82-year-old Richard Keen from Salt Lake City, said an amnesty clause "makes sense."

"Sexual assaults should be taken seriously," he said. "They should not have any policies that interfere with reporting them."

Teddie Warr, a 70-year-old West Valley City woman who described herself as a "card-carrying Mormon," supports the university. She does, however, believe a "partial amnesty" could go far in helping students feel comfortable in reporting sexual assault.

"BYU is just trying really hard to make a different situation for them and their parents worry about them," she said. "I don't approve of what's happened, not for a second. But they need to uphold the Honor Code system."

Of the 1,500 respondents polled, 27 percent don't believe the school should offer amnesty to victims who may have violated the university's Honor Code, while 21 percent were unsure.

The pollster, SurveyUSA, made automated calls to home phones and sent online surveys to cellphone users. The overall poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

BYU student Madi Barney reported a sexual assault to Provo police and, after BYU learned of that report, was investigated by the school's Honor Code Office. She has created an online petition — which was nearing 115,000 signatures as of Friday — asking for an amnesty clause.

She said that she was discouraged by the number of Utahns who didn't believe or weren't sure if such a clause would be beneficial.

"If the community could stand in my shoes, they might understand the tremendous impact that has had on my life, and the lives of other victims," she said. "Not only was my life put on hold because I was raped and because of the upcoming trial, my academic standing was put on hold. That is huge. Imagine going through the most traumatic event of your life — one that you will have to deal with for years and years — and wanting to feel normal and do normal things like go to classes and not being allowed to because you reported your rape."

Studying the issue • Eighteen percent of the Utahns surveyed approved of how the school was handling sexual-assault complaints, while 26 percent were unsure.

Among Latter-day Saints, 40 percent disapproved of how the school manages cases, 26 approved and 34 percent were unsure.

The LDS Church declined to comment, referring questions to BYU. School spokeswoman Carri Jenkins reiterated Thursday that BYU has "zero tolerance" for sexual assault, adding that the university recently formed Advisory Council on Campus Response to Sexual Assault is working to find solutions and recommendations for improvements.

"We are concerned when even one student believes the sexual assault reporting process did not work for her or him," she said in a statement. "... Many universities are studying this issue, just as BYU is."

The school is considering revising the relationship between its Title IX office, charged under federal law with investigating sexual violence, and the Honor Code Office, which determines discipline in sexual-misconduct cases after receiving findings from Title IX staff.

Jenkins said the four-member council will provide recommendations "as expediently as possible without compromising thoroughness." The council has met with students and sexual-assault survivors, according to Jenkins, and is working to bring national experts in for a visit and consultation. Members are also meeting with groups on and off campus that have interest or expertise in the issue.

The council's efforts include a public website, feedback2016.byu.edu, where people can leave comments and suggestions. Jenkins said the responses so far from alumni, experts, students and sexual-assault survivors have been "very informative."

Lindon resident and BYU alumnus Eric Nelson, 51, said the school has room for improvement and hopes it will find a better way to handle sexual-assault reports.

"I have no problem with the Honor Code, but I would never go after a young lady or a young man who was violated," he said. "I would never want that to influence the proper handling of an assault."

Changing opinions • More than a third of the respondents — at 37 percent — said learning about how BYU handles sexual-assault reports has lowered their opinion of the school. Among Mormons, nearly 1 in 5 (19 percent) said their view of BYU has dropped.

Five percent of all respondents, and 7 percent of Mormons, said their opinion of the school has improved.

The majority — 53 percent of all respondents and 69 percent of Mormons — said their opinion is unchanged.

One respondent, 37-year-old West Valley City resident Ryan Edwards, said his view of BYU hasn't changed — but he didn't think highly of the school before.

"I just don't like the way they treat women," he said. "… I think sexual assault, the minute it happens, it shouldn't just be reported to campus police. It should be reported to the Provo police. It should be handled as a crime right then and there."

Madeline MacDonald, a student who was investigated by the Honor Code Office after she was groped during a blind date in Orem, said she was angry that so many Utahns reported their views of BYU haven't changed after stories like hers were made public.

"There's a very real culture of being afraid to criticize anything related to the LDS Church," she said. "So I'm not surprised that so many people are striving to stay neutral in this matter. It's disgusting to me that a desire to protect the church leads to discounting the experiences of survivors."

jmiller@sltrib.com Twitter: @jm_miller






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