BYU-Idaho students protest for changes to Honor Code enforcement. School officials decline to talk.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU Idaho students chant as they march in protest. asking for changes in the honor code at BYU Idaho in Rexburg, ID, Wednesday, April 10, 2019.

Rexburg, Idaho • With 75 letters in hand asking for change, a trio of student protesters at Brigham Young University’s Idaho campus went to the Honor Code Office with hopes of talking to university officials about ways to make the enforcement of the code of conduct more humane.

As nearly 200 supportive students waved signs, chanted and waited outside on the public sidewalk, the three were told no one in the Honor Code Office had the time to talk to them.

That wasn’t good enough, organizer Grey Woodhouse said.

So they went next door, to the Dean of Students Office. But there, too, they were told everyone on campus was too busy to meet with them. So, these protesters handed off the letters and left.

“We had high hopes but low expectations,” Woodhouse said. “Going in there was terrifying.”

The brush off also made them feel small, she said afterward.

But the young organizers walked away from their protest feeling successful. They had anticipated maybe 30 people would show up to march around the Rexburg campus — probably just her friends and friends of fellow organizer Leanne Larson.

But instead, dozens and dozens of students came out to march around the campus perimeter, holding signs and chanting “What do we want? Reform! When do we want it? Now!”

They took up positions on street corners, cheering every time a passing car honked in support.

“I think this is just the beginning,” Larson said. “I think change will happen.”

The Rexburg protest is one of two planned this week on BYU campuses. The other will take place Friday in Provo, the Latter-day Saint faith’s flagship school where students also plan to march letters to the Honor Code Office seeking a softer approach. The student reaction comes after a renewed criticism that the private university — which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — cares more about punishing students who violate the religious rules rather than helping them.

The organizers in Idaho and Provo have similar aims. They want to do away with anonymous reporting of student misconduct, allowing it only when a student has been the victim of assault or abuse. They want Honor Code administrators to receive better training, and they want a student advocate to be part of the process. They further requested that a deadline be set, when students cannot be investigated for Honor Code violations that are more than a year old, among other requests.

The outcry for change has been building for months but took off last week after a BYU graduate started an anonymous Instagram account to post about her experience with the office and to ask other students to share theirs.

Many of the young students who marched around the campus Wednesday said it was those stories on the Instagram page that motivated them to protest.

As he marched with a sign with the message, “Bring Christ back into the HC Office,” junior Eli Wood said he read those posts, and thought of his friends in the LGBT community who felt they could not be themselves while attending the school. He said he once confessed something to his bishop, and was scared that he might be kicked out of the university as a result.

“I feel like they don’t try to help you,” he said of the Honor Code Office. “They just kick you out.”

Kathryn, a student who asked to be identified by only her first name, said she was protesting because she felt the Honor Code was often used as a weapon, a threat that roommates could lord over one another if they had disagreements.

She recalled a time last year when she was having a panic attack and her boyfriend came to her apartment to give her a blessing. Her roommates threatened to turn her in for breaking the rules — men are not allowed in their rooms — so she turned herself in, fearful that it would far worse if her roommates reported her instead. She left the office with a warning.

Aubrey Higginson, a sophomore at the Idaho university, said she decided to march after hearing stories like her friend, who had gotten in trouble with the Honor Code Office for breaking curfew just before she was supposed to leave to serve as a church missionary. It nearly drove her friend to leave the church.

“It should bring people to the church,” she said of the university and its Honor Code. “It just needs some updating.”

BYU-Idaho officials did not respond to a request for comment about the protest Wednesday.

University officials in Provo did meet with students earlier this week to discuss their concerns, but the Provo organizers say they still plan to hold their march Friday.

Most of the students sharing their stories say they support the church, BYU and the campus rules. Their objections focus on how the school handles allegations of misconduct and imposes punishment.

Many want to end pressure to report on their peers, a culture that has been largely encouraged up to now by school and faith leaders, they say. Some want the office to focus on academic integrity, such as cheating.

Kevin Utt, the director of the Honor Code Office on the Provo campus, responded to issues raised by students on the Instagram account and elsewhere with a Q&A posted Wednesday on the university’s website.

Utt said the school does not investigate anonymous reports, “except where the reported behavior could impact the physical safety of members of our campus community.” He said students cannot get in trouble for failing to report misconduct to the office.

He also said bishops and the office do not share information with each other without a student’s prior written consent; and that many accused students are unaware they can bring someone with them to meetings with the office for support.

The post didn’t specify how long the policies Utt described have been in place. He became the director in January after serving for four months as assistant director, it said, and has been meeting with students to hear their concerns.

Most cases handled by the Provo campus office are initiated by students reporting themselves, Utt said, and the “vast majority” of the students remain enrolled. On average, between 10 and 15 students are expelled a year, from a population of 33,000 students, he said. The post did not provide numbers for students suspended from enrolling in classes.

“Our goal is to help students come back into good standing as quickly as possible,” Utt said. “... Honor Code Office actions are intended to develop students’ moral and ethical decision-making.”

Campus officials in Rexburg did not respond to questions about the policies there, and it’s unclear whether the policies Utt described differ from practices in Rexburg. An Idaho student told The Tribune last week that a congregation leader, at her student ward’s first worship service last fall, told students they need to report violations by their roommates. In a later conversation, she said, he told her “... I was breaking Honor Code if I didn’t report my roommates.”

The Instagram account sharing Honor Code stories also brought new life to a year-old petition to reform how the church’s schools enforce the Honor Code, which prohibits premarital sex, sets certain rules for when and how dating occurs, contains a dress code and prohibits the consumption of alcohol, drugs, coffee and tea.

The petition — which raises many of the same issues students are discussing online these past few weeks — had gathered just a few thousand signatures after its initial launch a year ago.

It started to gain traction last month after several former BYU athletes took to social media expressing their frustration with the way the school has handled investigations into student misconduct. Those former athletes were responding to a Feb. 28 article in The Salt Lake Tribune that detailed how state investigators found that a former BYU police lieutenant looked at private reports created by other Utah County law enforcement agencies and passed information to university officials — including those working in the Honor Code Office.

That petition now has well more than 20,000 signatures.

As part of sweeping reform in 2016, BYU granted amnesty for Honor Code violations to students reporting sexual abuse. Some students said BYU had disciplined them if they were violating the code at the time they were allegedly assaulted; others said they did not report sex crimes because they feared such punishment.