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PROVO — LDS leaders condemned all sexual assault, expressing a zero tolerance standard for assault at Brigham Young University and in the church, and called for respect and sensitivity for survivors in a statement issued Thursday evening.
The statement was one of several developments Thursday as BYU reviews the way it responds to students who report they have survived a sexual assault. Some students have complained that honor code investigations of sexual assault survivors has created a chilling effect that keeps some from reporting when they are attacked.
"Let us be perfectly clear," leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates BYU, said in the statement pushing back on recent media coverage. "There is no tolerance for sexual assault at BYU or in the church. Assault of any kind is a serious criminal offense and we support its reporting, investigation and prosecution to the full extent of the law. Victims of assault or recipients of unwelcome sexual attention should be treated with sensitivity, compassion and respect, and should feel that those to whom they disclose the assault are committed to helping them deal with the trauma they have experienced."
The statement referenced the other developments of the day, calling them significant steps. BYU announced Thursday morning that a four-member Advisory Council on Campus Response to Sexual Assault has been studying the issue for more than two weeks. The committee also launched a website, feedback2016.byu.edu, to gather anonymous feedback from the campus and community.
Finally, the chair of the new advisory council, Student Life Vice President Jan Scharman, sent a letter to all students, faculty and staff about the council and the website.
"I assure you that this advisory council will study every part of the sexual assault reporting process at BYU," Scharman wrote.
The church's statement supported the council.
"We believe their work should be given time and space to proceed so that it can result in a process that more completely reflects care for victims of sexual assault and that provides a safer campus."
Let us be perfectly clear. There is no tolerance for sexual assault at BYU or in the church. Assault of any kind is a serious criminal offense and we support its reporting, investigation and prosecution to the full extent of the law.
–The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The four-member includes Julie Valentine, a sexual assault nurse examiner and BYU nursing professor with a rising public profile because of her research. She has reported that rape is under-prosecuted in Utah and that fewer than a quarter of rape kits in Utah are sent to the state crime lab.
She also has been part of a statewide campaign adopted by the Utah Legislature to change society's response to people who say they have been raped. "Start by Believing Day" is now held each year in Utah and is spreading internationally.
The church's statement said published stories of student sexual assault survivors who didn't like the way they were treated by the school are exceptions and do not represent the way BYU and church leaders try to respond.
"At Brigham Young University, students enter the campus knowing that they are expected to live according to high standards of personal morality and conduct, and certainly any form of abuse or assault falls well below any such standard," the statement said. "BYU's remarkable campus community reflects character and their commitment to live exemplary lives. Sadly, there are exceptions. Media have published deeply personal stories of victims of sexual assault who feel they have been treated poorly when reporting their assault. They are painful to read, but we do not believe they represent the ideals BYU or church leaders follow when responding to victims."
Federal law directs a student survivor of sexual assault to report the attack to the BYU's Title IX office. Title IX is the 1972 law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.
BYU's Title IX Office and Honor Code Office share information. Some students have said their reports of sexual assault led to investigations by the Honor Code Office into whether they had engaged in consensual sex, drinking or taking drugs, all of which are proscribed by BYU's honor code. Some students also say that rapists wield the threat of an honor code investigation, which can lead to expulsion, to keep survivors silent.
The practice of sharing information between the two offices has had a chilling effect, some say, stopping some students from reporting their assaults.
Valentine is a respected advocate for sexual assault survivors with a reputation for plain speaking. "I'm very honest, and I won't hold back," she said. "I call it like I see it."
She said committee began meeting at the start of May and launched the website as part of its effort to gather as much feedback as possible as it begins a thorough look into BYU's practices.
The committee doesn't have a deadline.
"We don't have a timeline," Valentine said, "but it's not something that's going to take a long time. This isn't going to end with a website or one-time actions. We want to create mechanisms so the system can continue to improve and we can continue to get feedback.
BYU President Kevin Worthen said a month ago that he had launched a study that would review and improve the university's response.
He specifically said review would address the issue of the relationship between the Title IX Office and Honor Code Office. He also said he hoped it would result in a system students can trust. That would allow student sexual assault survivors to approach the Title IX Office, the hub of resources for survivors, and help the university reduce the number of sexual assaults in the campus community.
"We're not perfect," Worthen said then. "We don't claim to be perfect. We can be better. This is important enough that we owe it to the community to say, 'This is the very best that we can do, and we've thought it through, and we've studied it through, and here's the changes that we're going to make.'"
The advisory council's chairwoman, Scharman, is a licensed psychologist and the sister of former BYU President Cecil Samuelson. She has had oversight of the Honor Code Office for about 20 years, in her current position and as the former dean of students at BYU.
The other two members of the council are International Vice President Sandra Rogers, who is a former dean of the BYU College of Nursing, and Ben Ogles, dean of BYU’s College of Family, Home and Social Sciences. Ogles previously served as chair and director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology at Ohio University.
The advisory council has two primary goals, according to a BYU news release and Scharman's letter to the campus community. First, it will identify changes BYU can make to work toward elimination of sexual assault on campus. Second, it will determine how to improve the reporting process for survivors of sexual assault "as sensitively and compassionately as possible" within the requirements of Title IX.
Over the past few years, Valentine has become known for research and activism that has uncovered troubling trends and worked to resolve them.
For the last 25 years, Utah has had higher rates of rape than the national average, according to the FBI. One possible reason is that the state isn't prosecuting rapists, Valentine found. Between 2003 and 2011, for example, Salt Lake County prosecuted just 6 percent of reported sexual-assault cases. The national average, also low, is between 9 and 15 percent.
Sexual assault nurse examiners like Valentine conduct difficult forensic exams of rape victims to gather evidence, but when Valentine led the most comprehensive study ever conducted on the use of these rape kits in Utah, she found that just 22.8 percent of the kits were submitted by law enforcement to the state crime laboratory for analysis within a year of the assaults.
Valentine recommended last month in a press conference that the Utah Legislature pass a law to mandate standardized submission of sexual assault kits to the state crime lab.
Her research also showed that too few people believe rape survivors, including family members, law enforcement and prosecutors. The premise of "Start Believing Day" is that everyone should consider how they would respond to someone who said they were sexually assaulted.
"How would they react if someone told them they were sexually assaulted?" Valentine said. "You start by believing."
The FBI has found that just 5 percent of reported rapes are false.
Valentine tested the premise of believing those who say they are survivors with the West Valley City Police Department. She trained officers on the impact trauma has on sexual assault victims. The department implemented new protocols meant to ensure compassionate treatment and support for sexual assault victims.
Valentine said the advisory council will look at best practices being developed in the military and on other campuses.
Some have suggested the university adopt an amnesty policy, providing sexual assault survivors and witnesses with immunity from an investigation into honor code violations at or near the time of the assault so they can report without fear of losing their place on campus.
"Amnesty is obviously something we are looking at," Valentine said. "We are looking at every option. This process is designed to create a safe, healthy, respectful campus and to support victims, help victims and create a climate where students will report."
She said the BYU committee first met the same day Worthen asked her to join it, and that the group has worked urgently since then. She believes what has begun as a painful experience for some students will lead to positive changes for BYU, survivors and the community.
"BYU really is incredibly concerned about these issues and wants to look at everything to make changes," Valentine said. "That's to be applauded, that it wants to take a very broad look, not just at Title IX and the honor code. There are a lot of factors, and we need to be thorough."
Contributing: Ashley Moser