Liberty needs to overhaul its approach on sexual assault

May 5, 2022 12:02 am

Flags fly at half staff at the campus of Liberty University May 15, 2007 in Lynchburg after the death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the founder of Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University. The school has been under scrutiny over its handling of sexual assault allegations. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Blaming the victims of sexual assault, rather than vigorously investigating men who are rape suspects. Dissuading women from filing criminal reports. Threatening academic and monetary sanctions against women for trumped-up violations of the moral code of conduct.

With such accusations being leveled repeatedly against officials at Liberty University – the private institution in Lynchburg known as a center for evangelical Christians – it’s fair to ask: Why would women feel safe on campus?

And why would parents allow their daughters to face a culture treating them with such contempt?

Rigorous reporting by the independent, nonprofit ProPublica preceded last week’s news that federal officials are investigating how Liberty handles sexual assault allegations. The U.S. Department of Education is probing whether the institution violated federal law by not adhering to the Clery Act.

That decades-old statute requires, in part, for colleges to inform students who report sexual assaults about the option of notifying law enforcement agencies, and to assist such reporting if needed.

Clery covers higher-ed institutions that participate in federal financial aid programs, and Liberty students receive nearly $800 million annually in aid from DOE, mostly through student loans. That figure was in the Top 10 nationwide in 2017.

I asked a Liberty spokesman for updated figures this week. He didn’t respond to that question – or others I’d asked about how the university handles sexual assaults.

The late, conservative televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr. founded Liberty in 1971. The university sits on 7,000 acres in Lynchburg. Some 15,000 students attend the central campus.

Liberty’s strict, 24-page student moral code, known as “The Liberty Way,” attracts many religious families. Sex outside “a biblically-ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman” isn’t allowed. The university prohibits alcohol, tobacco, pot and illegal drugs.

The code even dictates what’s acceptable clothing. For aquatics, for example, women are told they shouldn’t wear bikinis: “Swimming pool attire should be a modest swimsuit (one-piece swimsuit or tankini).”

Sanctions for various violations of The Liberty Way include dismissal or expulsion.

This would be harsh, perhaps even risible, for young adults at other colleges. But students at Liberty at least know the parameters when they decide to attend.

The code, however, shouldn’t be wielded as a club against women who say they’ve been raped.

Reports by ProPublica and The Washington Post indicate the onus is placed on the accuser, rather than the accused. Women who come forward are threatened with discipline if they attended events in which alcohol was being used – as if that was the worst thing that happened.

It’s a classic, anachronistic case of blaming the victim.

Way too often, women at Liberty are discouraged from reporting to authorities. Nor are they given the benefit of the doubt.

This means men on campus know they can get away with sexual violence. The atmosphere allows predators to attack, again and again.

Liberty officials, in a statement to ProPublica last week following the news of the federal probe, noted: “Liberty University welcomes the U.S. Department of Education’s review of our Clery Act compliance program.”

That response is noteworthy for its lack of information, or empathy.

In 2021, a dozen women sued Liberty, saying they were victims of sexual assault and misconduct. They contend Liberty didn’t help them and made the campus more dangerous. Among the problems, they described a suicide attempt and photo evidence removed from a report.

One plaintiff, a 15-year-old girl at the time, said she was mistreated by the university police department and threatened with filing a false report, according to The Washington Post. The plaintiff said she later learned her attacker was the notorious Jesse Matthew Jr., the complaint said.

Matthew was later accused of rape by another student at Liberty, the complaint said, and pleaded guilty in 2016 to the abduction and killing of Virginia college students Hannah Graham and Morgan Harrington.

Just last week, another student sued Liberty, saying the university failed to investigate her rape allegation and then retaliated against her for reporting it. The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, says the Texas woman was raped and sexually assaulted by a fellow student in April 2021.

“Instead of ensuring Jane Doe’s safety, Liberty engaged in classic victim-blaming, compounding her trauma,” Erika Jacobsen White, one of the attorneys, told The Washington Post.

White, in an email to me, said the attorneys weren’t aware of any criminal charges being filed against the alleged attacker. “We believe the deficiencies in Liberty’s case are plain from the facts of the complaint and speak for themselves,” she replied.

The complaint says, in part: “Liberty failed to investigate the rape and assault, refused reasonable accommodations for the Plaintiff, was deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff’s sexual assault and injuries, retaliated against the Plaintiff, and perpetuated a hostile and dangerous environment on and around campus, culminating in Plaintiff’s suspension from the university.”

Statistics show that rape and other sexual assaults are woefully underreported crimes. Women, who overwhelmingly are the victims, often are beset by fear, humiliation and second-guessing.

Given those facts, all university officials should take such accusations seriously. Besides, such a response isn’t optional. It’s the law.

A Liberty webpage on sexual assault awareness notes: “Only approximately 2 percent of all perpetrators will ever serve 1 day in prison.”

If Liberty officials don’t overhaul their approach, the percentage will never go higher

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]