Sidney Draughon’s first brush with Brigham Young University’s Honor Code Office came out of nowhere in 2015.
The first semester of her freshman year was nearly done when she learned that the office had received allegations she had violated the university’s strict set of rules, which all students must sign and swear to uphold.
Under the Honor Code, BYU students can't drink or smoke, sex is forbidden outside of marriage and grooming and modesty guidelines are spelled out, among other things.
The allegations against Draughon all stemmed from an old photo and a Twitter post from high school. That landed her on probation for a year.
Then in 2017 — during the first semester of her senior year — she was called in again. This time she faced an allegation of having inappropriate relations with a person of the opposite sex. She was given eight more months of probation, and her diploma was delayed.
The experience left her feeling depressed and isolated. But she also sensed she wasn’t alone. A 2018 graduate, she moved to New York where she got a job in finance. Still hurt by the experience, she turned to social media to share her story, creating an Instagram account she called Honor Code Stories.
“I was hoping that just one BYU student would see it and feel better about themselves,” said Draughon.
She never expected the response would galvanize so many. In January she started the Instagram account. On April 1, she left for work with about 50 followers. And then things blew up.
“By lunchtime I had 500,” said Draughon. “When I went to bed there were 1,000 Followers. And the next day there were 3,000 followers. And the next day there was 10,000 and then 15,000 and 25,000 and now we’re almost at 35,000. So I think it just speaks to how many people are feeling this hurt.”
Sending a message
The Instagram page is a mosaic of squares. Each square tells one student’s story in a short paragraph. The reports are anonymous.
They says things like: “I left BYU last year. I’m gay. The reason I left is because I was raped and blackmailed; I was told that if I didn’t have sex, I would be reported to the Honor Code Office and outed.”
Other stories are less serious, but equally disturbing, like: “My older sister was called in for favoriting a tweet back in HIGH SCHOOL.”
Honor Code Stories started to reach more people. It revived a petition started in 2017 on change.org calling for an update to BYU’s honor code. At last check it was nearing its goal of 25,000 signatures.
At the same time a separate group of current BYU students began organizing around the idea of reforming the Honor Code Office.
They want to send a message to the church-owned university that the office focuses too much on punishing students instead of helping them overcome struggles.
In an email, a BYU spokesperson said the Honor Code Office director has been meeting with students for the past week, listening to concerns and answering questions.
In the basement den of a suburban Provo home, a group of BYU students are huddling with laptops and cell phones around 10 p.m. on a recent Sunday.
Joseph Smith, a junior studying international relations, and six other students are there to strategize their next steps in their Restore Honor movement targeting the Honor Code Office.
They are planning for an upcoming protest, scheduled for Friday at noon, at the Wilkinson Center on the BYU campus. Smith, who says he’s related to the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, explains the Restore Honor movement has a clear mission.
The goal is “to realign the Honor Code Office with our Christ-centered campus,” he said. “We want to restore accountability to the honor code office as well as ensure protection, advocacy, and empowerment for students without compromising the integrity of the honor code.”
The students say the Honor Code was originally created in the 1940s by students, but BYU’s administration hijacked it in the 1960’s.That’s why some of the rules seem frozen in time, students say.
“There was a fear of communism, there was a fear of hippies like at the same time.” explained Emily Schaumann, a senior majoring in linguistics. “Some rules like for instance the beards, were a product of the time. And the culture has changed, so the rules might not be as applicable to the culture of now.”
But for now, Schaumann says, they’re focused on changing the way the existing rules are enforced. Schaumann says she’s raising her voice for others, including a friend who is gay, and ended up in the Honor Code Office accused of being in a relationship with another male student.
“He was treated totally differently than a non-LGBTQ student would have been,” said Schaumann.
Draughon of Honor Code Stories says the student movement gives hope to many who believe BYU can be better, including her.
“Just knowing that these students care so much about each other and whether or not you have a story on that page,” she said, fighting back tears. “To just see all of these students working literally all through the night It’s just incredible. This is what BYU is.”