BYU makes more changes to Honor Code Office to reduce students’ ‘anxiety,’ boost transparency

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) In this April 12, 2019, file photo, Tyler Slade and Zoe Calcote stand for a moment of silence as they gather on the campus of Brigham Young University, with hundreds of BYU students at a rally to oppose how the school's Honor Code Office investigates and disciplines students, in Provo. The school announced Wednesday more changes to the administration of the office.

Brigham Young University announced updates Wednesday to its Honor Code Office that officials say will “reduce misunderstanding and anxiety” that has occurred at the Provo school.

The changes include following an “innocent until proven guilty" policy, detailing the appeals process, allowing a second person to accompany students in Honor Code meetings, and no longer calling Honor Code Office employees “counselors.”

The updates are posted online at HonorCode.BYU.edu and clarify changes that were announced in May by the school, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“To help reduce misunderstanding and anxiety, we’ve learned we need to better educate the campus community about what a correct process looks like,” Kevin Utt, director of BYU’s Honor Code Office, said in a statement. “Being transparent helps a student articulate if something isn’t going according to plan and provides the opportunity for concrete feedback.”

Utt also hinted at more reforms to come, saying that the school "will continue to communicate updates as they are rolled out so that students know what to expect as they arrive on campus for the fall semester.”

In April, a rally — a rare occurrence at BYU — was organized to protest how the school enforces its Honor Code. The code prohibits premarital sex, sets certain rules for when and how dating occurs, contains a dress code and bars the consumption of alcohol, coffee and tea — in line with the Latter-day Saint health code called the Word of Wisdom.

Some students have complained the school seems to care more about punishing those who violate the rules than helping them. Their objections focus on how BYU responds to allegations of misconduct and imposes punishment — not on the Honor Code itself.

“I’m grateful that BYU is becoming more open and more transparent, but there is still a long way to go before it dismantles some of the more problematic parts of enforcement," student Cal Burke said of Wednesday’s announcement. “I’d like to see it be more aligned with the gospel of Jesus Christ and be a place of mercy, where those who are struggling can find help.”

Among the changes announced Wednesday:

• Good faith statement • Students will be presumed to NOT be in violation of an Honor Code policy unless they either accept responsibility or the investigation process makes such a determination.

• Support person • Students have the option to choose someone such as a friend, faculty or staff member to accompany them in meetings with the Honor Code Office. In response to feedback from students, the Honor Code Office website now details the process of bringing such a support person.

• Appeals • Students have a right to appeal a decision if they feel it was not reasonably supported by facts, the action was too harsh, the office was biased, or new information is available that may change the findings. Utt said that while a path to appeal an Honor Code Office action has been in place, awareness of the process was low.

• Employee title change • To reflect their role as student conduct professionals, not therapists, staffers will now be called Honor Code Office administrators and not counselors.

While her first reaction to the changes was positive, student Harper Forsgren said as she read deeper into the changes she noticed holes.

“While innocent until proven guilty is a good policy,” she said, “they didn’t mention any improvements to the investigation process or how they decide to investigate. There really should be a better framework for that."

Former BYU student Evan Jones, who recently transferred to the University of Utah, said BYU’s announcement doesn’t address his concerns with the appeals process.

“The people who handle the original cases are still handling the appeals," he said, "and that seems wrong.”

Utt noted in the news release that all Honor Code Office administrators have completed training from the Association for Student Conduct Administration on appropriate questions to ask during student conduct meetings. This training from ASCA, a national organization that develops and promotes best practices for universities, will be reviewed on a regular basis and is now part of the training for new office employees.

“One important part of this training is how to ask questions sufficient and appropriate to the case and not go beyond the scope needed,” Utt said. “This best practice helps make the process respectful and fair.”

Utt became the Honor Code Office director in January and began a review of all office policies and practices. The latest website updates include changes and clarifications that are in addition to those Utt announced in May.

“I have taken seriously the charge to review each facet of Honor Code process,” Utt said. “The feedback from the students has been an essential component to this process, as it has provided a comprehensive perspective on the realities and perceptions of the Honor Code and the Honor Code Office."

In a May 13 letter to students, Utt shared several changes already implemented by the Honor Code Office. Students now are told the nature of the violation, for instance, and the person who has reported it.

A couple of years ago, BYU also decided to grant amnesty for Honor Code violations to students reporting sexual assaults, after victims said they were being punished. Their cases now are handled by the Title IX Office.