Brigham Young students say university’s Honor Code made them afraid to report sexual assaults
(ABC) -- Provo, Utah, nestled between pristine mountains and Utah Lake, is home to Brigham Young University and the Mormon lifestyle it reveres.
The locals call it Happy Valley, but for some survivors of sexual assault, the place is anything but happy.
Margot Crandall, a student at BYU, grew up in the Mormon tradition, which holds a woman’s chastity and virtue as paramount. It’s why, she says, when a stranger got a hold of a compromising photo of her, he was able to use it to lure her into a trap.
“He had stalked me on the Internet, contacted me,” Crandall said, “and more or less blackmailed me into meeting up with him.”
And when she met with him, Crandall said, he brutally assaulted her.
“He had just hit me a lot, and while he was raping me, he had bound me,” she said.
She said she finally managed to escape, but his terrorizing continued.
“After it was over, he told me that he had taken another photo or video” during the attack, to use as blackmail “to make me keep seeing him,” Crandall said.
She said she was scared to go to the police because “if the police find out, then BYU would find out.” Crandall said she didn’t want the university to find out what happened because she said she was “afraid of their honor code.”
“I was afraid that it would be seen as my fault and that I would get kicked out of school,” she said.
BYU’s honor code is a list of strict Mormon-based rules, with stipulations that students dress modestly and that caffeine, alcohol, pornography and premarital sex are forbidden. Students can be expelled for violating the code.
Crandall said her rapist believed BYU students live in fear of violating its honor code, which puts the school’s women at risk.
“If people know that BYU girls are going to be afraid to report something like that ... that really puts a target on their backs,” she said.
Some BYU students say the university’s honor code can shame some rape survivors into silence, which is why they have decided to go public with their stories of sexual assault. Crandall said she wanted to die after the attack.
“Honestly, I was hoping that I wouldn’t make it out of there ... I felt so much shame. I was so embarrassed, and I just thought that my — I didn't know how I could recover from what I was experiencing.”
Within days of the attack, Crandall said her rapist sent her an email, this time threatening her with new images he said he took while assaulting her. Crandall said that was her breaking point.
Her father, David Crandall, a professor at BYU, says he encouraged his daughter to go to the police.
“Knowing that my dad believed me – that was what I needed to go to the police,” Margot Crandall said.
Her rapist was convicted and sentenced to five years to life in prison. He is appealing the case.
“I am glad that she had the strength to want to prosecute the case ... to face her rapist,” David Crandall said.
For Madi Barney, another BYU student, going to the authorities about her alleged sexual assault was extremely difficult.
When she went to the Provo police station, she said, “I was just sobbing that I could not report because I knew that BYU was going to find out.”
She said a police officer assured her police wouldn’t tell BYU, so she worked up the courage to file a police report against Nasiru Seidu, whom she accused of raping her. He has pleaded not guilty.
When she first met Seidu, Barney said, she thought she was going on a date with a young single guy, but she said she later learned he had lied about his age, his marital status and even his name. In reality, Seidu was a married 38-year-old youth soccer coach.
In the weeks that followed, Barney said her high GPA began to slip.
“Some days you have panic attacks and you can’t breathe, and some nights you have nightmares,” she said.
Despite the assurances of privacy from the police, BYU received a copy of Barney’s rape report. She said she soon found herself answering questions from BYU’s Title IX investigator.
Barney said she told the investigator, “I don’t recall breaking the honor code.”
“And she goes, ‘Well, we have your police report,’” Barney continued. “And I go, ‘Excuse me? How did you get that?’”
Barney’s police report was leaked to the university by a sheriff’s deputy.
Margot Crandall said BYU’s Title IX office repeatedly reached out to her before her trial, but she said she never replied.
Across the country, Title IX offices are supposed to be of service to rape survivors. Brett Sokolow, an executive director for the Association of Title IX Administration and a national consultant on Title IX issues, says Title IX is designed to protect students.
“We’re not concerned about the minor alcohol violation. We’re not concerned that you had a boy in your room,” Sokolow said. “We as an institution feel ethically and legally obligated to do everything we can to help you in that situation.”
Instead, Barney said, the BYU Title IX investigator seemed more interested in her possible honor code violations.
“They told me that they could not give me the services that they would provide a rape victim because they could not prove that I had been raped,” Barney said.
Brigham Young University told ABC News “Nightline” in a statement, “When a student reports a sexual assault, the primary focus is on the victim’s safety and well-being under the Title IX policy ... A report of sexual assault would always be referred to the BYU Title IX office, not to the honor code office.”
In a taped statement, BYU President Kevin Worthen said the university is studying the relationship between their Title IX office and their honor code office.
“We recognize that there’s some tension between those two,” he said in the statement, “that there are some victims of sexual assault ... who already feel like they don’t want to come in ... and that sometimes the fear of what’s going to happen may keep them from coming in ... What we want to do is minimize that as much as possible.”
Barney said she was told that if she didn’t cooperate with an honor code investigation, she would be barred from registering for future classes.
“Title IX spoke as if they were the honor code,” she said. “[The investigator] said to me, ‘If you don’t let us investigate this, then we’re going to pass this information along to the honor code office.’ It felt like blackmail.”
Barney has since launched an online petition demanding that BYU offer amnesty from honor code infractions when students report sexual assaults.
“I don’t understand why BYU isn’t taking a step back and saying, ‘Hmm, you know, it’s much better to keep a young woman who’s a victim in school than let her rapist walk around,” she said.
Sokolow says many colleges across the country have amnesty clauses, which pledges to not punish victims or witnesses for alcohol or drug use or other minor violations when they report sexual misconduct.
“If you don’t have an official amnesty, then victims may hesitate to come forward because the possibility to be subject to discipline creates a chilling effect on reporting,” he said.
Advocates say the way BYU’s honor code is enforced makes an already painful ordeal that much more excruciating. Crandall said having the rape kit samples taken was very traumatic — “having to be naked in front of someone again, having them take pictures of all your injuries,” she said.
And yet fewer than 40 percent of rape kits collected in Utah are sent to a crime lab, according to a study by BYU professor Julie Valentine, who feels it’s putting the women of Utah in jeopardy.
“I think that is a huge public safety concern,” she said. “We’re finding as more kits are tested that we’re identifying serial rapists. Many times, these are the undetected rapists in our community.”
In fact, Crandall’s rapist was accused a decade earlier of what someone close to the case characterized as a similar assault, although that accusation was dropped. “I read the police report 10 years later, and it was almost word for word what he did to me,” Crandall said. “It just makes me think, ‘How many girls were there between me and her?’”
Reporting sexual assault gives victims access to resources for therapy, which Barney said has been her lifeline.
“And that’s what worries me about ... people feeling like they can’t report,” she said. “[If] you’re not being able to talk about what happened, then how are you going to get help? And BYU is preventing women from getting help for this. They’re not looking at the bigger picture.”
After dropping out of school, Crandall went to re-enroll at BYU, but, she said, the university offered academic support only after it had documentation that her rapist was found guilty.
“It seemed like until they had gotten proof that he was convicted, until that time, they weren’t superfriendly or nice or didn’t really offer me any help,” she said.
Crandall said the school then helped her change her failing grades with withdrawals on her record. She’s now on track to graduate next spring. She and her father said they are hoping BYU will include an honor code amnesty clause for sexual assault cases.
“We’re talking about human beings,” David Crandall said. “What we need is the person who has been assaulted to be lovingly cared for.”
“If I stayed silent, I think I would have carried that around with me for the rest of my life. Whereas now, I’ve been able to speak out about it,” Margot Crandall said. “And it’s helped me heal.”