The dam broke this week and horror stories flooded out about Brigham Young University’s Honor Code Office and the critical need for reform.
In the process, the wave that has swept across campus has opened an opportunity for a constructive discussion regarding student expectations and, just maybe, an atmosphere that more appropriately balances the desire to maintain standards with a sense of mercy and forgiveness.
BYU is a private institution, to be sure. Moreover, it’s a religious institution and therefore has standards of conduct — embodied in the Honor Code — and nobody should expect any different. It prohibits alcohol and coffee, regulates interactions between male and female students, restricts same-sex romantic expressions and regulates other really dishonorable things, like growing a beard.
Students know that’s part of what they sign up for when they enroll at BYU and, as defenders of the Honor Code rightly say, if they don’t like it, don’t go.
Yet times change and so does the Honor Code and this flurry of stories has prompted serious discussion about how the school can enforce its standards without it feeling like a campus version of the Spanish Inquisition.
In recent years, as my colleagues at The Salt Lake Tribune have detailed, women who reported sexual assaults at BYU said the Honor Code Office punished them for violating school policy. A BYU police lieutenant accessed supposedly confidential police reports from other departments and shared them — including at least one case involving an alleged rape — with university officials and the Honor Code Office.
Last month, several former BYU athletes spoke out on social media, urging changes in the way the university enforces the Honor Code. One of them was former BYU linebacker Derik Stevenson who said he got addicted to pain pills to treat football-related injuries, then hid his addiction out of fear of reprisal from Honor Code investigators.
Sidney Draughon was prompted to create an Instagram account where students could share their Honor Code Office encounters — and she has her own. After a young man reported to school officials that he had engaged in sexual touching with Draughon, an Honor Code investigator called and interrogated her about who touched whom and where and what kind of underwear she wore. In another instance, she was called into the office, accused of immodest dress and presented with a printout of a tweet that she had liked, while still in high school, that included an inappropriate term.
Her Instagram account — @honorcodestories — has blown up and students are also flooding Twitter with the hashtags #ThatsNotHonor and #ReformTheCode complaining of a toxic system used to settle scores.
Some are stories from students whose roommates once reported them for watching an R-rated movie. Others are more serious.
One male student posted text messages he had received from a man he had dated threatening to report him to the Honor Code Office if he didn’t engage in sexual activity. “You go to BYU right?” the message read. “It would be a shame if they found out about you.”
In one post, a female student tells about being interrogated and disciplined after she was sexually assaulted on campus. There is a story of a student who was punished for sexual misconduct after she told her story of falling victim to a sexual predator. Another post tells of a sibling who took his life after an ex-girlfriend gave his name to the Honor Code Office and he got expelled.
The consequences these students face can be severe, including potential expulsion from school, and they come at a time when these young people are still learning who they are. Some will, inevitably, make mistakes and it shouldn’t cost them their apartment or their degree.
It is Old Testament justice untempered by New Testament mercy.
The entire movement for Honor Code reform takes a tremendous amount of courage, both for students willing to share their stories as well as students organizing a protest on April 12, who have to recognize they could be targeted and punished by the university.
The demands of the student protesters, however, seem entirely reasonable. They want student or faculty witnesses to be able to sit in on Honor Code hearings and to not require students to waive their right to legal counsel.
To keep students from using the Honor Code Office as a vindictive weapon, they want to prohibit anonymous reporting except in cases of assault or risk to the student. And they want an attitude and approach to the Honor Code focused on repentance rather than retribution.
And they’re encouraging students to demand to see their own file at the Honor Code Office so they can find out what tabs the university is keeping on them.
More than 20,000 people have signed an online petition asking for an update to the Honor Code.
On Thursday, BYU administrators responded on Twitter that, “We’ve seen the conversations this week about the Honor Code Office. We love our students and alums and how much they care about BYU. These messages are leading to constructive dialogue between students and the leadership of the Honor Code Office.”
That is a tremendously encouraging sign. The BYU Honor Code won’t go away and no one should expect it to, but that doesn’t mean the school shouldn’t identify concrete ways to maintain honor while acting more honorably toward its students.