Most BYU sexual assault victims either report to Mormon church leaders or don’t report at all, campus survey shows

Roughly one in five victims say fear of the school’s Honor Code discouraged them from turning to formal support services.

The Salt Lake Tribune/November 16, 2017

By Benjamin Wood

Most Brigham Young University students say the Provo school is not doing a good job of teaching the campus community about sexual assault, according to survey results released Thursday. 

Large majorities of students said they had received no training on BYU’s sexual assault policies, how to report an assault, the legal definition of assault, the services available to victims or how to intervene as a bystander.

And despite widespread changes aimed at improving the school’s response to sexual misconduct, most students who said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact in the year before the March survey did not report it.

The results from the Provo school’s first campus climate survey show it needs to continue its work to educate students, said Ben Ogles, chairman of BYU’s survey committee.

“The first place we can make a difference is in training,” Ogles said. “If we get more people reporting, then we can help them.”

The committee’s recommendations include teaching students about reporting, support services, sexual assault policies and support services for victims.

It also recommended sharing the responses with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns BYU, to inform the training for bishops and other faith leaders who oversee Mormon students.

Among students who experienced unwanted sexual contact during the year before the survey, 64 percent said they made no formal report.

Twenty-six percent disclosed their experience to a bishop or other local LDS leader.

Eight percent reported to BYU’s counseling center, 4 percent reported to faculty, 3 percent reported to law enforcement and 3 percent reported BYU’s Title IX Office, which oversees campus sexual assault investigations and compliance with federal sex discrimination laws.

Julie Valentine, a BYU nursing professor and sexual-assault researcher, said the results illustrate the outsize role that LDS bishops and congregation leaders play in campus-related sex assaults.

She said it’s common for a victim to not initially realize that she or he experienced sexual misconduct, which could explain why students are more comfortable discussing incidents with a religious confidante than police or campus counselors.

“I think that’s very unique [to BYU],” Valentine said. “And I think that then brings up the question of what training is being provided to ecclesiastic leaders on best practices and responding to victims when they report sexual assault.”

In a prepared statement, LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said church leaders would review the results of BYU’s survey.

“What this demonstrates is that there is an important pastoral role for LDS leaders to play in caring for those who have been impacted by sexual assault or abuse,” Hawkins said.

“We will look carefully at the results of the survey from BYU, and then give ecclesiastical leaders further help to minister to those they serve — both in preventing and responding to sexual assault,” he said.

BYU changed its Honor Code in July in response to criticism that it was having a chilling effect on the reporting of sexual assaults, and at times led to the punishment of victims. The code prohibits premarital sex and using drugs and alcohol, imposes a dress code, curfews and limits on social contact between students of opposite genders.

Under the new amnesty policy, victims are not referred to the Honor Code Office and are not disciplined for code violations occurring at or near the time of reported sexual misconduct unless a person’s health or safety is at risk. The new policy was among sweeping changes BYU adopted a year ago to encourage reporting, support victims and prevent assaults.

In the survey, students who did not report recent unwanted sexual contact most commonly said they deemed their experience not serious enough to report. But 21 percent of students responded that they were worried about Honor Code-related discipline and their academic standing.

Ogles said the 12-month period covered by they survey questions precedes the formal adoption of the amnesty policy, but also illustrates the silencing effect that the code can have on victims of sexual assault.

“Students are worried about it, you see that in those numbers,” he said. “They didn’t get the memo. Some of them don’t know the steps we’ve taken in the past year.”

Overall, 6.5 percent of female BYU students and 1.2 percent of male BYU students indicated they had experienced unwanted sexual contact in the 12 months before the survey.

Most of them said they had told a friend, roommate or family member about their experience. But 59 percent of all BYU students said they don’t know where to go for help if a friend is assaulted.

Only 22 percent of students responded that they had received education on what the definition of “consent” is.

The survey, commissioned by BYU, had a response rate of 43 percent, which administrators noted was high for a survey of its type.

“We’re really pleased to have such a good response from the students,” Ogles said. “We can have some confidence that the report has some representiveness to the campus community.”

Valentine commended the survey committee for the design and level of detail in the poll.

Unlike similar surveys at U.S. schools, BYU students reported a low incidence of drug- or alcohol-related misconduct. But a relatively high number, 52 percent, of victims responded that their attacker was a dating partner or spouse.

BYU “really is a unique climate and needs to be addressed as such,” Valentine said.

Ogles said the committee expects to conduct a follow-up survey in two to three years to track changes in sexual assault, reporting rates and awareness of campus resources.

“Having this detailed information allows us to try to figure out the situations that are most risky for our students,” he said.

A request for comment from BYU President Kevin Worthen was denied, but campus spokesman Joe Hadfield said the administration plans to act on the committee’s recommendations.

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