Brigham Young University students say sexual assault policy changes have eased ‘culture of fear,’ but there’s more work to be done

A year after Brigham Young University began offering amnesty from Honor Code investigations to students who report sexual assaults, the “huge culture of fear” has eased, senior Tinesha Zandamela believes 

But changing the climate on campus — including seeing a widespread understanding of consent — will take more time and more conversations, said Zandamela, a member of the Young Emerging Leaders Advisory Council for the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault (UCASA).

“We have hundreds and hundreds of students, maybe thousands, who don’t believe that sexual assault actually even happens on this campus or that it’s just this rarity and we don’t need to talk about it,” she said.

“So until we do talk about it more and be a little bit more loud and constant with our message and with more education,” she said, “I don’t think that too much is going to change.”

Tiffany Turley, the school’s new full-time Title IX coordinator, said the university has received more sexual assault reports in the first few weeks of classes than it saw in fall semester last year.

Her office, charged with swiftly responding to and resolving complaints of sexual violence, has provided 60 training sessions to students and faculty already this semester, Turley said.

“I think people just might not have known what Title IX was before, so with all the trainings that we’re doing, the awareness campaigns … people know there is a place on campus where they can go and get help,” she said.

She said the reports are “significant” but declined to provide a specific figure.

“The number of reports is really what kind of helps us sleep at night,” she said, “and know that while every day we go home and wonder, ‘What more could we do?’ we know that what we’re doing now is heading in the right direction and it’s making a difference to our students.”

‘It’s getting better’

Last October, an internal advisory council gave BYU 23 sweeping recommendations to improve its response to sexual assault reports, including an amnesty policy. The school began offering amnesty immediately and adopted a formal policy in June.

The council was created after more than 50 people told The Salt Lake Tribune they were sexually assaulted while attending BYU; a majority said they did not report the assaults, citing fears they would be disciplined for conduct violations.

The Honor Code at BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, includes a curfew and a dress code; forbids alcohol, coffee and illegal drugs; prohibits premarital sex; and regulates visits between male and female students.

Mallory Matheson, a sophomore political science major, said she thinks some “cultural stigmas” associated with reporting sexual violence will “linger forever” on campus.

“Victim shaming and the Honor Code has been a huge deterrent [to reporting] in the past,” she said. “It’s getting better, but it’s very slow, you know, because no one wants to say, ‘Hey, I was drinking and then I got raped.’”

Turley said she recognizes the Honor Code office formerly created a “chilling effect” on reporting. But she said it’s also brought benefits. From 2012 to 2016, “about half of reports made to the Title IX office came from the Honor Code office,” she said.

“It’s helped generate reports that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” she said. “I think it’s created more help and ways for students to get help when dealing with some of these issues than maybe other schools [have].”

But in another change, Title IX staff now must ensure information they receive from alleged victims isn’t shared with Honor Code officials without their consent. The offices now have separate workspaces.

Julie Valentine, a BYU nursing professor who researches sexual assault and served on the advisory council, said new faith in the school’s Title IX process may have led more survivors to come forward.

“I know we have more students reporting, which means that there’s increased trust, so to speak, of the system, and that’s what we want,” she said, noting that the increase likely doesn’t reflect an increase in sexual assaults.

‘You’ll continue to see improvement’

This year, BYU trained its first-year students on consent at orientation for the first time. Sean Martinsen, a first-year student from Ohio, said it wasn’t his first exposure to consent, but it was more comprehensive than he would have predicted.

“I wouldn’t have really expected [the training] to be so in depth because this is BYU and you know the kind of standards that BYU has,” he said. “It clearly showed how important it is to BYU that the students knew the importance of Title IX.”

But Zandamela said she thinks many students still don’t understand their actions — or things that have happened to them — might not be consensual. Dialogue about consent and healthy relationships may only be reaching a small group of students already interested in the topic.

“Unfortunately, it is at this point a little more of a centralized conversation,” she said.

After a September consent training called “Can I Kiss You?”, one BYU junior said that was his first exposure to the concept.

At a workshop for family, friends and survivors of sexual assault last week, Claire, a senior linguistics major who asked not to be identified by her full name, said she didn’t have a “super firm understanding” of the issue, either.

“I’m not having conversations with my peers or my roommates or my family about, you know, ‘What is the definition of consent?’” she said. “But I do think about whether or not a relationship is healthy.”

Turner C. Bitton, executive director of UCASA, said fostering an understanding of consent is one of the most important strategies for preventing sexual violence.

“Without a strong understanding of what consent is and what consent is not, we set ourselves up for failure,” he said. “We fall into the same old traps. We have to, as a society, create a consent-based culture and not a dismissive culture.”

Turley said the university has addressed or is working on implementing each of the recommendations from the council, which suggested conducting campus climate surveys to learn more about students’ experiences. BYU is finalizing data from its first survey, which will be released sometime this semester, Turley said.

At that point, Valentine said the university will likely make further changes.

“The recommendations are the starting point,” she said, “but you’ll continue to see improvement that will be somewhat driven by [the] campus climate survey and feedback from students.”

RESOURCES FOR SEXUAL-ASSAULT VICTIMS: 

The following organizations offer services to victims of sexual assault:

Provo Police victims services division • 801-852-6375

Advocates can discuss victims’ legal options and connect them with counseling and other resources. Advocates say victims who seek services are not required to make a police report.

The Center for Women and Children in Crisis • 24-hour hotline: 801-356-2511; toll free 888-421-1100

The center offers counseling, advocacy during hospital exams, therapy groups, educational resources and support. Organizers say the hotline is confidential.

This piece originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune. Click here to read the original article.


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