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The four Brigham Young University staffers asked to study how the school handles reports of sexual assault and decide how it can do it better were familiar with the trauma often experienced by victims.
Chairwoman Jan Scharman, student life vice president; and Ben Ogles, dean of the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences, are licensed psychologists. Sandra Rogers, international vice president; and Julie Valentine, an associate nursing professor whose research focuses on sexual assault, share a background in nursing.
But it was eye-opening, council members said, to learn about the evolution of Title IX federal regulations concerning sexual assault and how BYU has responded to changes in federal expectations.
"I didn't realize how much Title IX had changed over the last few years and influenced universities," Ogles said. "And how universities are struggling to adapt."
This week, the four members of the Advisory Council on Campus Response to Sexual Assault released their findings, recommending 23 changes including amnesty for victims who disclose Honor Code violations, and other efforts aimed at separating the school's Title IX and Honor Code offices.
The charge from university President Kevin Worthen came after public criticism from current and former students who said they were investigated for Honor Code violations in connection with sexual abuses against them. Others said they were sexually assaulted, but never reported because they feared being disciplined for breaking the school's code which forbids alcohol and coffee, imposes a dress code and regulates contact between male and female students, among other restrictions.
'People wanted to contribute' • In April 2011, the U.S. Department of Education clarified that Title IX a law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools receiving federal money also applies to cases of sexual assault. The law requires colleges and universities to promptly investigate cases of sexual misconduct and take steps to resolve the situation.
The council members looked at the history of and changes to the Title IX Office in their school, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Over hundreds of hours of work, they consulted experts, read current research about sexual assault and conducted interviews.
Valentine spoke with more than 15 victims, some of whom had reported their experiences to the Title IX Office. Ogles headed efforts to create a campus climate survey to gather more information about student attitudes and the prevalence of sexual assault.
All four members sorted through the nearly 3,200 suggestions and experiences shared through the school's website. Each helped with interviews with on-campus entities and interested community groups, such as local police departments and the local rape recovery center.
"It was really heartening to me how many people really care about this," Scharman said. "This was something where there was a lot of interest and really feelings of compassion. People wanted to contribute to make it safer and to help victims."
It became clear to her that BYU needed a full-time Title IX coordinator, she said. Dean of students Sarah Westerberg was serving as a part-time coordinator, but it's a big job, Scharman said, and to be done well, it requires someone who can focus on that job alone.
BYU already is advertising to fill that new full-time position.
Other recommendations also are being put into effect immediately. No staff from the Honor Code Office will be located in the same office as Title IX workers.
Title IX staff members, who provide services to victims of sexual violence, will be charged with ensuring that information provided by students reporting assaults will not be shared with the Honor Code Office without their consent. And while the wording of a final amnesty policy still faces review, students who report sexual assaults no longer face having their conduct at the time questioned for possible Honor Code violations.
Looking forward • Another recommendation, adding a victim advocate, was necessary to give victims a person to talk to who wouldn't be in an investigative role, Scharman said
"There needs to be someone there to talk with these victims right at first to tell their story," she said. "And [that person would] not have to do an investigation and can give them resources."
Council discussions were "vigorous" and "heart-felt," Ogles said, which led to the 23 recommendations that he feels he can support "whole-heartedly."
The council members say they'll continue to work to educate students about sexual assault.
Ogles will work on releasing the campus survey, which he said was just approved by the school's Institutional Review Board. BYU is deciding when to distribute it to students.
Valentine will serve on a Title IX compliance committee.
"I'm thrilled with the results, with the recommendations that have now been approved," Valentine said Thursday. "…The important thing is, it's triggering a lot of discussion and dialogue, which I think leads to greater understanding. We did this for our students and our campus. This will make a difference. These are really sweeping changes."
She said she hopes discussions will continue on not just BYU's campus, but at all universities and elsewhere.
"Part of this discussion is educating society how to respond," she said. "Most victims will respond [first] to a co-worker or friend or family member. Teaching them to respond in supportive ways, telling them, 'I'm sorry this happened,' and getting them help rather than victim-blaming [is important.] If the first person they share it to [is supportive,] they're more likely to report."