This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated.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.
As roughly 35,000 students return to Brigham Young University (BYU) this semester, there is one thing that will not be in their welcome packets: BYU has a sexual assault problem, and the school isn't doing nearly enough about it.
BYU is one of 202 U.S. universities being investigated by the federal government for Title IX violations related to the way they handle sexual assault. This may be a surprise to folks under the misconception that the school's Honor Code should make BYU a safe place. But the school's Honor Code acts more like a weapon against women and LGBTQ folks who are victims of sexual assault.
The Honor Code can seem extreme to outsiders. When I was a student at BYU in 2011, I could have been kicked out of school simply for deciding I didn't believe in Mormonism, even if I still followed the rules (no coffee, sex, etc.) I could have lost all my earned credits and housing as well.
But less than three weeks after Free BYU asked the American Bar Association to determine whether BYU's Honor Code was religious discrimination, BYU quietly softened the code to allow folks to leave Mormonism and still graduate.
Despite this welcome change, women are still being kicked out of school for Honor Code violations that occurred when they were sexually assaulted. BYU's shoddy response to assault cases provoked widespread outrage, including protests and a Care2 petition with more than 116,000 signatures. But with the recent softening of the Honor Code, we know change is possible.
So far, officials have convened a panel of experts to study the topic, and the school has asked for community feedback. These are solid first steps but, as school is set to begin, zero concrete changes have been made.
As a former BYU student, survivor of sexual assault and women's rights activist, here are four concrete suggestions of my own.
• Be open about it. President Kevin Worthen's address last week was a start. He said the issue was one the campus community will address in-depth. But the administration should craft an email to the students, clergy, faculty and staff that acknowledges the shortcomings that activists have made them aware of. This email could also include resources for victims and the folks they tell first (usually a trusted friend, clergy or professor).
• Amnesty for survivors. Shielding assault survivors from Honor Code violation ramifications would make it clear to them that it is safe to come forward about sexual assault, regardless of the circumstances surrounding what happened.
• Require campus police to report all sexual assault claims to local police. Here's the thing: The sooner rapists get the message they will be investigated and prosecuted for their actions, the sooner they stop raping. Rape is a felony, a violent crime, and it should be handled in the public system not by a university that has a vested interest in keeping victims silent to protect its reputation.
• Educate clergy, staff and administration on best practices in dealing with cases of sexual assault. The basics include: believing the victim, not blaming them and helping guide victims to appropriate resources. The school employs mental health care professionals who could lend their expertise in balancing the desire to enforce the Honor Code with the well being of victims.
BYU must send the message to its students loud and clear: you are more important than the rules. The Honor Code exists to keep students safe, physically and spiritually. So when BYU is being told that it is having the opposite effect on some, isn't it time to re-evaluate?
Kelsey Bourgeois is a former Mormon and BYU student, sexual assault survivor and women's rights activist. She is currently a campaign writer for Care2, an online petition site.