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ProPublica details how Liberty University discourages reports of sexual assaults


Liberty University is one of the country's largest private evangelical institutions. It's known for a strict moral code called the Liberty Way. That means no drinking, no smoking, no sex outside of marriage. But some former students now allege the school used that same code of conduct to discourage reports of sexual assaults. A warning - some listeners will find this subject matter disturbing.

Hannah Dreyfus of ProPublica reported on this and told me some of the women on campus faced a difficult choice.

HANNAH DREYFUS: Many of the women I spoke to decided to not even try and engage the university because they had seen their friends come off so much worse off for trying to do so. But among the women who did come forward, we see a lot of really disturbing patterns. One of those that stood out was that in the process of reporting an assault, women were asked to sign a document acknowledging that they could be punished for breaking the Liberty Way, which is the university's strict code of conduct. So...

MARTIN: In other words, if it came out, that they would be blamed for participating in that or for drinking at a party where the alleged assault happened.

DREYFUS: Exactly. Consuming alcohol, being at a party, being in an enclosed space with a member of the opposite sex - these are all things that stand alone as infractions of the Liberty Way. So even though there's supposed to be an amnesty policy at the school that protects students against being punished for self-reporting, they were still given papers to sign that said, if you move forward with your assault charges, just know that you could be on the line for these punishments as well.

MARTIN: So did you get a sense from your reporting that the university was actively trying to cover these assaults up?

DREYFUS: The word cover up has a lot that comes with it. But it is clear that the school did not facilitate reporting, that when women did come forward and report sexual harassment, there were attempts to dissuade women from continuing to pursue their charges, a lack of information given to victims of sexual assault about what their options were. And it was made clear to those who did engage fully with the university that the evidence that they provided wasn't going to be taken seriously because in certain cases, pieces of evidence were actually removed from complainants' files without their knowledge or permission.

MARTIN: The current president of the school, Jerry Prevo, put out a new statement saying the Liberty Way should never be misused to cover up wrongdoing. He's also insisting the school, quote, "will not tolerate Title IX violations, sexual abuse or sexual assault in any form at any time." Prevo only took over the school last year, when Jerry Falwell Jr. stepped down. How much of what you discovered can be connected to Falwell's leadership?

DREYFUS: Much of what I discovered took place over the tenure of Falwell's leadership. And students describe to me that Jerry Falwell's impact on campus did, in fact, impact whether or not they felt safe to come forward.

MARTIN: Sexual assault survivors have said they want a cultural change at Liberty. What are they asking for, and what's really feasible in a religious school with such a strict moral code?

DREYFUS: So I think the answer is that they're looking to reframe the stress that's put on purity culture on campus. And purity culture is a preoccupation with not having sex before marriage and, to a great extent, vilifying those who do have sex before marriage - and mainly the women - because it's a concept that women need to safeguard their virginity and that their virginity speaks to their value as a person and that if they do something to put that in peril, it is, in fact, their fault. And the pervasiveness of purity culture on campus is part of what makes sexual assault so impossible to handle because the assumption of guilt is immediately placed on the victim rather than on the assailant for having put herself in a position where she could have been assaulted. And that, I think, is what students are really looking at needs to change.

MARTIN: Hannah Dreyfus of ProPublica, thank you so much for taking the time and sharing your reporting.

DREYFUS: Of course - it's been an honor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.