Liberty University, the school run for so many years by the disgraced Jerry Falwell, Jr., is once again being exposed for its absurd rulebook — so full of double standards — that left so many female students in danger.
This time, the reporting comes from ProPublica’s Hannah Dreyfus, who spoke with several victims who were punished or ignored by the school after being victims of sexual assault.
Some background here is useful: Back in July, 12 women sued Liberty University, claiming that officials there “intentionally created a campus environment where sexual assaults and rapes are foreseeably more likely to occur than they would in the absence of Liberty’s policies.”
Their harrowing stories, outlined in graphic detail in the lawsuit, offered evidence for how the school violated Title IX rules (which require schools to protect students from discrimination on the basis of sex), threatened victims for violating the school’s insane honor code (“The Liberty Way“), and didn’t take their sexual assault claims seriously.
To put it bluntly: When some women reported their assaults, the school seemed more upset that the women drank and went to parties than they were at the men who assaulted them.
One of the women in the lawsuit, “Jane Doe 3,” explained how, in 2017, she went to a party where she drank alcohol. Not a lot, she said, but enough to cause her to black out. When she finally came to, a male Liberty student was “on top of her.” When she woke up the next day, in an apartment belonging to a friend of her assailant, things got worse:
She found her ‘friend,’ who grabbed her, forced her onto the bed, digitally penetrated her, removed her bra and grasped her breasts and neck so forcefully as to leave bruises, and forced her into penetrative sex, all without her consent and over her objection.
She wanted to report all this to Liberty’s Title IX Department, but her RA warned her against it, saying she would be punished for drinking because of Liberty’s rules.
She reported it anyway. During the course of the investigation, though, pictures she took of bruises on her body were removed from the file… because, according to Liberty, they were too “explicit.” Liberty eventually dismissed the case. The male student faced no consequences. In fact, he allegedly “began a campaign of harassing her, culminating in a frivolous lawsuit against her.”
Jane Doe 3 tried to take her own life. She was thankfully unsuccessful. She later dropped out of school.
That’s the story as we knew it. But based on all those details, that students appears to be Elizabeth Axley, one of the former students who opened up to Dreyfus. (Dreyfus never explicitly says Axley is Jane Doe 3, but if those are two different people, they have remarkably identical stories.)
… A few days later, Axley received another email from the university. It said that as the case was moving ahead for a final decision, Axley needed to sign a document acknowledging that she could be found to have violated the university’s code of conduct. The Liberty Way covers nearly all aspects of a student’s life and includes bans on drinking and “being in any state of undress with a member of the opposite sex.”
As the document that Axley received phrased it, by moving ahead with the case, Axley was acknowledging that she herself could face “possible disciplinary actions.”
The bottom line is that Liberty’s Christian approach to sexual assault has “led to school officials discouraging, dismissing and even blaming female students” for reporting crimes.
Ten more former students told me they chose not to report their rapes to campus officials amid fear of being punished. “I knew I would face the blame for putting myself in that situation,” said Chelsea Andrews, a Liberty alum who said she was assaulted by a Liberty graduate student.
(Incredibly, Elysa Bucci, Liberty’s lead investigator in the equity office and the first person to hear Axley’s story, now works as a Title IX investigator at Baylor University. Which tells you a lot about how few qualifications you need to do such an important job at a Christian school.)
Here’s another bombshell from Dreyfus: She sent detailed questions to Liberty “weeks ago” regarding their approach to sexual abuse complaints and never received a response. But Scott Lamb, Liberty’s senior vice president of communications until he was fired earlier this month, said that the school was very aware of the questions. His requests for answers were met with silence from other administrators:
“The emails from ProPublica were definitely ignored,” said Lamb. He recalled himself and one colleague trying to make a case for the school to respond. “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.”
Liberty’s lack of response was typical, Lamb explained. “Concerns about sexual assault would go up the chain and then die,” he said. It was “a conspiracy of silence.”
Another problem: When students told Bucci about their assaults, she sent them a list of resources that didn’t include law enforcement, as required by Title IX. Christian counseling? Sure. But not the cops.
This isn’t just a Falwell problem. It existed long before him, and Falwell’s replacement, Jerry Prevo, hasn’t done anything to fix the problem either. As long as Liberty U. has a set of Bible-inspired rules regarding sex that cannot be changed, women on campus will continue to be at risk. Men are well aware that if they choose to assault a woman, she won’t have any viable options to report the crime because it will inevitably backfire. They school doesn’t take their claims seriously. Even if they do, the victim may be punished for putting herself in a bad situation.
It’s as if the school’s reaction to sexual assault is a collective, “Well, what was she wearing?”
Liberty isn’t alone here. Christian ministries like Young Life and other fundamentalist campuses like Patrick Henry College have all acted in similar ways. They don’t take assault seriously because they’re more concerned about anyone having sex before marriage (with or without consent).
If the most powerful people at these schools don’t take the problem seriously, and parents continue sending their students to these places because they doubt these situations will ever involve their kids, when will anything ever change?
(Image via Shutterstock. Portions of this article were published earlier)