Sexual Assault Survivors At This Mormon University Are Now Safer Thanks to Madi
Brigham Young University (BYU) is a religious Mormon-owned University with a strict Honor Code that prohibits things like drinking coffee and alcohol and having premarital sex.
The code is meant to keep students safe, but has had unintended consequences for years — including silence and shame for victims of sexual assault.
The prohibition on sex has spawned a culture in which reporting an attack amounts to “admitting” one’s involvement in forbidden encounters. Even if it was non-consensual. For years, students who reported their assaults were routinely targeted by the Honor Code Office, sometimes resulting in their probation or even expulsion from school. This practice even created a culture at BYU where perpetrators could lord the Honor Code over victims’ heads in order to keep them quiet about attacks.
Then in April, the facade came crumbling down when several brave students and survivors decided they could no longer accept the shame and silence anymore. They took the subversive step of speaking out about the problem and their stories of mistreatment by BYU administrators.
Students described being threatened with the Honor Code by attackers, being shamed and doubted by BYU staff, and receiving punishment for the circumstances of their assault. Much of the controversy circled around the Title IX office, which is meant to protect students from sex-based discrimination, including assault.
All it took was a few students to open the floodgates.
Once they had shared their experiences, dozens of current and former students began telling similar stories. Many even say they never reported their attacks for fear of academic retribution and revictimization by the school. By the school — not even by the assailant.
One Survivor Fights Back
Madi Barney is one of these students. Madi was raped off-campus by a man she knew. She was terrified to report the rape to the school, so she decided to go to the police instead. Later, the college received a copy of the police report and opened an Honor Code investigation against her.
Madi stood up in a sexual assault awareness event in April 2016 and asked the Title IX coordinator, Sarah Westerberg, why BYU was threatening to kick her out of school. It was a stunning moment.
But even more stunning was what happened next: Westerberg cruelly and publicly doubted Madi’s account of her assault. She admitted she wasn’t sorry that, when a student approached the Title IX office about an assault, BYU had a practice of forwarding information about those incidences on to the Honor Code Office. Westerberg even acknowledged that this practice had a “chilling effect” on victims, but seemed not to care. And this is the woman in charge of victim advocacy at BYU.
Madi knew this wasn’t right. She wrote a petition on Care2 calling for amnesty for all survivors of sexual assault at the university. She wanted to be sure no one would ever have to go through what she had. And her call resonated: the petition gathered thousands of signatures in just days.
In that time, dozens of other survivors who had been mistreated by officials, or who had never even reported for fear of academic retribution, gained the confidence to come forward with their stories. As the pile of signatures and testimonies grew, Madi decided she was ready to show school administrators how much support her cause had. In late April, Care2 worked with her to organize a protest, followed up with by a delivery of all 90,000 signatures.
Since protesting on the BYU campus is strictly prohibited, organizers made sure to hold the event just outside of the school’s property. More than 80 people attended the rally, holding posters and wearing teal fabric across their mouths to visually signify the silencing effect of the current practices. Then the group marched onto campus grounds, dropping their protest materials along the way, and headed straight toward the administration building.
Together, more than 80 people stood together in solidarity as an administrator met them and received the printed 90,000 signatures.
Madi and All Other BYU Survivors Achieve Justice
News outlets all over the United States ran articles about the assaults and the university response. And just a few weeks later, BYU convened a committee to investigate the way its staff responds to sexual assault. But the pressure kept building when, later in the summer, the federal government launched an investigation into the functioning of the Title IX office at BYU, the result of which could result in loss of federal funding for the university.
For seven months after the delivery, Madi waited to see what would happen. She kept her petition open, and watched as her signature count crept all the way up to 117,000. 117,000 people who stood firmly and resolutely behind her and all survivors of sexual assault.
And then after seven months of waiting, it happened.
Just yesterday, BYU officially announced that it would immediately implement an amnesty clause to shield survivors of sexual assault from Honor Code Investigations. By doing this, they neutralized the Honor Code as a weapon used by sexual predators. The school will also be enacting 22 other recommendations from the committee, including separating the Title IX and Honor Code offices physically and otherwise, and hiring several new staff members to be true victim’s advocates. These changes are no small feat for a school like BYU. Although some expressed a healthy dose of skepticism about implementation, most advocates were thrilled with the announcement.
When the news broke, Madi was finally able to close her petition and announce that it had won. In her closing message, she wrote to her supporters:
“Thank you so much for your signatures, comments, and diligence in keeping up the pressure on BYU – the committee did read comments from the petition as part of their study. Let’s celebrate this huge victory and continue to keep a close eye on implementation!”
The implementations are not perfect. There is still a clause that leaves other admissions a survivor makes during a disclosure potentially open to academic investigation. There is no explicit plan to train Mormon clergy. And yet, it’s still a massive victory.
Madi said in her public statement, “I hope that BYU will be a better, safer place for the students who will be at BYU after me.” Madi, because of you, we know it will! And that’s thanks to you, your courage in coming forward, and the 117,000 Care2 members that spoke up along with you.