Survey: BYU falling short on sex assault education

Thursday , November 16, 2017 - 2:51 PM

Rick Bowmer

FILE - This April 20, 2016, file photo, protesters stand in solidarity with rape victims on the campus of Brigham Young University during a sexual assault awareness demonstration, in Provo, Utah. Rep. Angela Romero, a Utah lawmaker, is working on new statewide rules requiring college counselors to keep sex abuse reports confidential. The move comes after Brigham Young University faced significant backlash when it was revealed that some reported assault information was shared with the school's honor code office. Romero says her legislation was not spurred by the controversy at the Mormon-owned school but it would apply to public schools and private schools like BYU. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

By BRADY McCOMBS
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Most students at Brigham Young University students think the Mormon-owned school needs to do more to educate them about what constitutes sexual assault, how to properly report it and what help is available for victims, according to survey results released Thursday that are part of the school’s wide-ranging review of how it handles the issue.

The survey also found nearly two-thirds of students who suffered unwanted sexual contact in the last year didn’t report it to authorities. When it was reported, the most common place was to local Mormon church leaders.

About one in five students who said they suffered assaults didn’t report them to officials because they were worried about being disciplined under the school’s strict honor code that bans drinking and premarital sex, found the survey completed by 12,600 students this last spring.

Ben Ogles, chairman of the committee that oversaw the survey, said the findings show too many of the nearly 29,500 students on campus aren’t aware of the major rule change announced last October that provided an “amnesty” clause allowing students to report sexual assault while no longer being investigated for possible honor code violations.

The change was a major reversal to a practice that drew widespread scrutiny after female students and alumni spoke out against the school opening honor-code investigations of students who report abuses. That led to the interval review that not only changed the policy, but spurred the hiring of a victim advocate to provide confidential counseling for victim.

The school plans to form a new committee of students and faculty that will research what other colleges do to educate students and tailor a program to fit the religious school, said Ogles, dean of BYU’s College of Family, Home and Social Sciences.

For instance, BYU students reported that alcohol was rarely used by victims or alleged attackers. That makes the school quite different from other campuses.

“We can’t just take an intervention off the shelf,” Ogles said. “We have to tailor make one so it’s not all about alcohol scenarios.”

Nearly one in five people who reported being assaulted went to a local or regional Mormon church leader, the survey found.

Ogles said it wouldn’t bother him if even more went to their religious leaders since those men provide an “extra source of support,” but he said BYU will also teach students that they also need to report the abuse to campus officials so they can get academic help and services.

Leaders with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are carefully reviewing the survey results to give their local and regional church leaders guidance to help prevent and respond to sexual assault, said spokesman Eric Hawkins in an emailed statement.

“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.

Madeline MacDonald, a former BYU student who was one of two women who triggered the changes by coming forward about her experience, said she understands why victims look for spiritual reassurance from religious leaders. But, she says many Mormon leaders aren’t properly trained on how to respond.

She said that when she told her bishop that she was sexually assaulted on a 2014 date, he made her feel guilty about being on the date and skipping a church event where people were playing board games.

“They are viewing everything from a religious perspective that teaches a lot of guilt around sexual experiences,” said MacDonald, now 21 and studying at the University of Utah.

MacDonald said the biggest issue at BYU is that students don’t understand what consent is since their religion teaches them that any sexual activity before marriage is a sin. That puts BYU in a difficult position, she said.

“Even teaching consent goes against all of BYU’s honor code,” MacDonald said.

The Associated Press doesn’t normally identify sexual assault victims but MacDonald said she wanted her name used.

Among survey respondents, nearly 7 percent of women reported experiencing “unwanted sexual contact” in the last year. Among men who took the survey, it was 1 percent.

The most common occurrence was forced kissing, fondling and touching or rubbing up against a person in a sexual way, the survey found.

About half of the occurrences were done by somebody the victim had previously or was currently dating.

Two out of three victims first reported the incidents to friends. For that reason, Ogles wants all students to be ready to be sympathetic toward victims and encourage them to go the campus counseling center to report.

“It’s just heart-breaking that people are suffering in silence,” Ogles said.