Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Our broadcast signal serving the St. George (93.9) area is operating in low power mode.
More info.

Student lawsuit claims Liberty University's culture fostered sexual violence

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Our next story has some disturbing subject matter. It covers sexual assault and is about five minutes long.

For many students at Liberty University in Virginia, the school's Christian atmosphere is its appeal. But more than a dozen women are suing the evangelical college. They argue that Liberty's code of conduct, including its rules about sexual behavior, created a culture that fostered sexual violence and even punished women for reporting it. In a new federal court filing this week, a lawyer for the group says more women are coming forward with similar allegations. Here's NPR's Sarah McCammon.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: The summer that Jane Doe 12, as she's called in the lawsuit, was 15, her mom sent her to Liberty University's debate camp. They saw it as a safe place for a teenage girl.

JANE DOE 12: I loved the Christian values of the university. I was raised as a Christian. I'm still a Christian. We did a lot of fun things in the evenings.

MCCAMMON: Doe 12 is in her 30s now. And she's asked us not to use her name, saying she fears for her personal safety.

A few days into camp, when she was briefly alone in a dorm, she says a young man grabbed her, groped her and tried to rape her until she was able to break free. According to the lawsuit, when Doe 12 reported the assault, a male Liberty campus police officer suggested the slacks she was wearing might violate the campus honor code, called the Liberty Way. And she says he implied that her clothing made her a target for the attack.

DOE 12: And the man just says to me, well, you know, women who wear dresses are showing obedience to God, and men will respect you more if you wear dresses and skirts.

MCCAMMON: Another plaintiff, Jane Doe 2, says she also felt like she was blamed by Liberty's staff for her sexual assault while she was a student in 2005. In the lawsuit, Doe 2 says she was assaulted by three men while walking to her dorm one night. She says after she reported the attack, Liberty officials failed to carry out a proper investigation under the federal Title IX program, which outlines protections for victims. She struggled to cope with the trauma and began missing classes.

JANE DOE 2: I just functioned. I didn't sleep during the nights. I napped when I could during the days. And I was basically just trying to get through the rest of the school year.

MCCAMMON: When she asked a Liberty professor for leniency, she says her request was denied and that the professor seemed to imply she'd played a role in her own assault.

DOE 2: And I remember, again, still explaining the fact that I was assaulted. And she looked at me and said, I'm sorry; you shouldn't have given them your GPA, too.

MCCAMMON: In the lawsuit, attorney Jack Larkin argues that the Liberty Way - the honor code which allows expulsion of students who engage in premarital sex or use alcohol - has been used to discourage students from reporting sexual assault and created a climate of secrecy and retaliation against women who do report it.

JACK LARKIN: A plaintiff might allege that she was the victim of a date rape where her drink was spiked. And when she made that report to an RA, she's encouraged by the RA, oh, you need to not bring this up the chain because you're going to be expelled or otherwise disciplined for drinking in the first place.

MCCAMMON: Larkin says that's essentially what happened to several students at Liberty.

Liberty University officials have called the allegations, quote, "deeply troubling if they turn out to be true" and promised to look into them. Officials also say amnesty is offered for any honor code violations that might surface when someone reports a sexual assault. But those promises can get lost when a victim is afraid and traumatized, says Valerie Dufort, a former Title IX investigator at Liberty until she left last year.

VALERIE DUFORT: There's a thousand things going through their mind, and we've just barraged them with provisions we can make and exceptions to the rules. But it's very, very overwhelming for a student. So I could understand where that would get lost in translation.

MCCAMMON: The issue is bigger than Liberty, says Beth Allison Barr, a historian at Baylor University and the author of "The Making Of Biblical Womanhood," which examines misogyny and patriarchy in Christianity. Barr says evangelical purity culture, which emphasizes abstaining from sex before marriage, can be particularly hard on women.

BETH ALLISON BARR: The assumption is that either the woman was not properly safeguarding her body, she was in a place she wasn't supposed to be, she was inebriated or she was wearing something or doing something that provoked the temptation of the man.

MCCAMMON: Scores of conservative Christian colleges around the country have similar codes. Barr says schools like Liberty should examine ways these honor codes may single out women for shame.

In addition to monetary damages, the plaintiffs are asking for policy changes at Liberty, including better training for staff members who work with victims of sexual assault. Both Liberty and the women's lawyer say they're considering mediation.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.