University founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell threatened to punish students who reported rapes, report says

‘It honestly felt like they were trying to sabotage my case,’ student says after reporting sexual assault to school

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Monday 25 October 2021 19:10 BST
Related video: Lawsuit against Liberty University alleges mishandling of sexual assaults
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Liberty University, founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell Jr, threatened to punish students who reported rapes and sexual assaults, a report has alleged.

The school ignored reports of sexual assaults and threatened to punish those accusing others of abuses for violating the school moral code, ProPublica reported. A school official told the outlet he was fired for raising concerns about the issue, calling it a “conspiracy of silence”.

Elizabeth Axley assumed that the school would handle her report of rape properly as the school uses scripture to urge students to speak up if they see or experience abuse.

“Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves, for the rights of all who need an advocate. —Proverbs 31:8,” info signs and sheets said.

When Ms Axley was a first-year student at the evangelical university in 2017, she went to a Halloween party at an apartment away from campus where she had eight shots of Vodka and some other drinks. The next thing she remembers is waking up with another student on top of her, with his hand over her mouth. The student denies the claim.

Ms Axley called campus police upon returning to her dorm. An officer took her to a hospital where a nurse found 15 injuries of various kinds, such as bruises.

When she told her resident adviser about what had happened, the adviser told her not to report the incident as she could be considered to have broken the school’s rules against drinking and associating with members of the opposite sex.

The adviser instead suggested they pray together.

“I was really confused,” Ms Axley told ProPublica. “They were making it seem like I had done something wrong.”

“I didn’t want to get fined or punished, but I wasn’t going to let this keep me from reporting my assault,” she added.

Universities are federally mandated to have offices for looking into sexual assaults.

“He was all over you,” a friend told Ms Axley in texts she saved to report on the assault. The friend added that it was “pretty damn weird”.

“I f***ing remember making noise and him covering my mouth oh my god,” Ms Axley texted a friend. In addition to the texts, Ms Axley had also taken photos of her injuries to back up her claim. “When I went into that office, I was ready,” she told ProPublica.

Elysa Bucci was the lead investigator with the office of equity at the university, in charge of looking into Title IX violations. The civil rights law bans sexual discrimination at schools that get federal funding, something Liberty students get to the tune of $800m a year.

Ms Bucci started questioning Ms Axley instead of looking at her evidence, asking why she had gone to the party, what and how much she had drunk, making the student “immediately” feel judged. Ms Bucci, now in the same job at Baylor University, chose not to comment on the reporting.

Ms Axley was called back to the office after five months to look at the investigation documents before it was to be reviewed by a committee. When asked by Ms Axley, Ms Bucci reportedly said the photos of the student’s injuries had been removed because they were thought to be too “explicit”.

“I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach,” Ms Axley told ProPublica. “I had been relying on them all these months to take my evidence into account when considering my case, and it wasn’t even in my file.”

“It honestly felt like they were trying to sabotage my case,” she added.

She then got an email from the school, saying that she needed to sign a document to show that she was aware that she could be found to have broken the school’s code of conduct, which bans drinking and “being in any state of undress with a member of the opposite sex”.

Ms Axley could face “possible disciplinary actions” if she chose to move the case forward, the document said.

ProPublica interviewed more than 50 former students and members of staff, which along with records from numerous cases, reveal that the school’s focus on sexual purity has led to officials blaming, ignoring, dismissing, and discouraging women who try to report their sexual assaults.

Two other students also said they had to sign forms similar to that of Ms Axley. Students have also alleged that Liberty University police officers have urged victims not to press charges when they have reported sexual crimes.

Some members of staff didn’t report cases to the Title IX office as required after students had come to them with allegations of crimes. When students filed complaints, they were sometimes not told that they could go to the police – a notice required by law.

Scott Lamb told the outlet that he was fired from his job as Liberty University’s senior vice president of communications earlier in October for pushing school officials to respond to emails from ProPublica.

“The emails from ProPublica were definitely ignored,” Mr Lamb said. He tried to get the school to respond along with a colleague. “We said, ‘Listen, the optics of this are killing us. Is there anything we can message — something? A message about empathy? Or that we’re at least working to get to the bottom of this?’ And then it dawned on us: They’re not working to get to the bottom of this.”

“Concerns about sexual assault would go up the chain and then die,” he said, adding that it was “a conspiracy of silence”.

Two former students allege they were punished after reporting sexual assaults, with one saying that she was fined $500 and told to attend counselling after drinking alcohol. The student, who chose to remain anonymous, was also told that her transcript wouldn’t be released until she paid the fine.

“The goal of The Liberty Way (Student Honor Code) is to encourage and instruct our students how to love God through a life of service to others,” the honour code says. “The way we treat each other in our community is a direct reflection of our love of God.”

“Sexual relations outside of a biblically-ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman are not permissible at Liberty University,” it adds.

Instead of responding to the mounting criticism on social media, the school decided to disable comments on its posts and accounts wherever possible, emails show.

The school was founded in 1971 by Jerry Falwell Jr, a Baptist televangelist and conservative activist. Around 15,000 students are enrolled at the Lynchburg, Virginia campus, but the school also has a significant online presence.

The Independent has reached out to Liberty University for comment.

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