An Instagram account sharing anonymous stories has renewed conversation about BYU’s Honor Code

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The campus of Brigham Young University in Provo in 2018.

Sidney Draughon got a call from Brigham Young University two days before Christmas.

A man she dated had told the college, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that their relationship broke the Provo school’s strict rules forbidding any sexual touching before marriage. The administrator was calling to ask exactly what she had done.

“She asked questions about my underwear,” Draughon recalled. “She asked, ‘Where did he touch you and how many times?’ She wanted to know everything.”

Draughon had put the call on speaker at her Georgia home. Her mom told her to stop answering, that the questions were too invasive.

“If I don’t answer these questions, I lose my education,” Draughon remembers responding. So her mom left the room, unable to listen any longer, and Draughon kept giving more details to BYU’s Honor Code Office, which would decide if and how she would be disciplined.

In December 2017, the office decided to put her on probation. She wasn’t able to graduate on time because of it.

When she finally got her diploma last fall, Draughon started an anonymous Instagram account to post about her experience with the office and to ask other students to share theirs. It blew up this week — going from 50 followers to nearly 20,000 — a spike that comes after renewed criticism that the private religious university cares more about punishing students than helping them.

The account has 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. And it’s sparked talk of a possible protest on campus.

Most of the students who are 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.

(Photo courtesy of Sidney Draughon) Pictured is former BYU student Sidney Draughon.

Draughon would like to see the Honor Code Office closed, concerned about the current employees’ approach. Or, in agreement with other students, she’d like changes in the personnel, qualifications and training for those who adjudicate student cases.

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

“Everyone has a story,” Draughon said. “So many people have been affected. But nobody talks about it. … The only problem is the Honor Code Office. It’s not even the Honor Code.”

‘We can do better’

Grant Frazier has never been in trouble with the Honor Code Office. But as he scrolled through Draughon’s Instagram account this week, he felt motivated to take action. He’s planned a sit-in at the university’s Honor Code Office for next Friday afternoon.

"I figured the kids who have had bad experiences are scared of the Honor Code Office," he said. "But I'm a freshman. I have my whole life ahead of me. Why not be the one to fight this?"

An 18-year-old, Frazier describes himself as a good student who loves the church and being a BYU student. And he believes the way the Honor Code is currently enforced goes against the values of the faith.

“I don’t want to do away with the Honor Code,” he said. “I just think we can do it in a Christlike, repentant way.”

The organizers 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 students to be able to bring in peer and faculty witnesses during the disciplinary process, and they want the Honor Code Office to operate with the understanding that students will make mistakes.

“We think that it's a privilege [to attend BYU], but we think we can do better," he said.

BYU officials confirmed Thursday that they've contacted several students — Frazier said he's one of them — to talk about their concerns.

“We’ve seen the conversations this week about the Honor Code Office,” officials said in a Thursday post on Twitter. “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.”

If the discussions go well, there's a chance that Frazier will cancel the sit-in, he said.

BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said Thursday the university is aware of both the Instagram page created by Draughon and the petition for change. She said the university is always seeking input from students but declined to make any further statement.

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

It started to gain some 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.

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.

Some faculty have said they’re ready for further change. Political science professor Adam Brown posted Thursday after looking at the Instagram account that he loves the university and sees “its tremendous potential to do good.”

But, he added, "we should never be so at ‘ease in Zion’ as to overlook all these concerning comments.”

110 stories

When the Honor Code Office called Draughon about her relationship, it was her second time being questioned.

In May 2015, she got her first call, as an official asked her to come in and speak with an Honor Code administrator without explaining the allegations. As she walked into the office, she said, there were two papers laid out on a table: a picture of Draughon with some friends on a summer vacation and a printout of a post on Twitter that she had “liked.” Both had happened years earlier.

“Can you explain these?” the administrator asked. All Draughon could think was, “How did they find these?”

The tweet included a crude word to describe attractive men walking around Temple Square. She had found it funny while she was in high school, about three years earlier. She hadn’t posted it or even shared it. And the photo was of her with her cousin and some other girls. They were “dressed immodestly,” she was told, and a man from her hometown had sent the picture and the “liked” tweet to the school out of concern.

“I felt so violated,” said Draughon, now 24. “They told me, ‘It doesn’t matter how you got caught, it matters that the Spirit wanted you to get caught.’”

She was put on probation for the first time, and was blocked from signing up for classes without permission. She was required her to complete 30 hours of community service a month, study her scriptures, attend church talks on campus and meet with an Honor Code staffer periodically. She shared with The Salt Lake Tribune emails sent to her by the office.

So far, she’s posted 110 stories on the Instagram page @honorcodestories. And she’s got at least another 400 in her inbox.

“Every time I walked out of that office I wanted to throw up and pass out,” she said. “You’re constantly terrified. You just think about it 25 hours a day.”

Her mom, Bonnie Draughon, said she’s been disappointed with how the school has handled the cases and how much control they had over her daughter’s future. If Draughon violated any of the probation requirements, she could be kicked out of school and lose her campus job. If her roommate accused her of coming home too late, she could be questioned again.

“The way they treated her was awful, telling her they didn’t believe her,” Bonnie Draughon said. “I was flabbergasted that some lady was asking details about her sex life over the phone.”

Bonnie Draughon said her sister had a similar experience with the Honor Code Office about 20 years ago. “This is a long time coming. Nobody has ever done anything about it,” she said. “Finally it just can’t go on any more.”

Other campuses impacted

The pressure on students to inform on each other is overt at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, one student said. BYU-Idaho is another one of the four colleges operated by the church.

At her student ward’s first worship service last fall, a congregation leader "started talking about how it's really important to follow the Honor Code, which, I agree with the Honor Code as a set of rules," the student said.

But the ward leader didn't stop there, she said. "He went into specifics on how to report students who aren't following the Honor Code, how we need to watch our roommates, and if they mess up we need to report them," she said.

The student said she was reported to her bishop, by her roommate, for "passionate kissing" and for returning to her room after the school's midnight curfew.

The bishop began the conversation cryptically, she said, by asking whether she would report a roommate for breaking curfew. "He got really mad" when she told him she would not, the student said.

"He told me it was my responsibility to report my roommates if they were out past curfew or if they were breaking Honor Code, and I was breaking Honor Code if I didn't report my roommates."

The bishop told the student she was "lucky" her violations had been reported to him rather than to the Honor Code Office — and "if I was reported for anything at all or if I was caught one more time kissing or breaking curfew, I would be expelled."

A previous roommate also reported her to a bishop for “immodesty” because she had worn running shorts — inside their apartment, she said. The woman shared her current student ID, but asked to not be identified, fearing reprisals.

Reporting to bishops can have the same effect as reporting to the Honor Code Office because bishops can pass reports on to Honor Code enforcers or withdraw a student's ecclesiastical endorsements, effectively kicking them out of the school.

At BYU-Idaho, the very first item on the school's online reporting form offers anonymity to informers. At BYU-Hawaii, the online form for Honor Code violation reports asks for informers' names and contact information, but notes that informers don’t have to identify themselves.

LDS Business College in Salt Lake City “generally does not investigate reports given by anyone unwilling to identify himself or herself” but may investigate anonymous reports at the discretion of the Honor Code Office. BYU in Provo asks informers to identify themselves.

‘A toxic culture’

Many of the stories posted on the Honor Code Instagram account start with wording like, “My roommate turned me in …”

Several students who talked to The Tribune said they were encouraged to report peers to the office without confronting or alerting them. That’s a big part of what many students want to change.

“It creates a lot of aspects of a toxic culture,” said one former Provo student who left BYU after the office suspended him for eight months. “That threat of turning someone in, that can enable abusive situations and behaviors.”

The student has since enrolled at the University of Utah and asked not to be identified because his parents don’t know about his transfer; the pressure to be in good standing with the church, he added, is far-reaching.

He was disciplined last May after he “hooked up” with another student in BYU-approved apartments. The girl’s friend reported them. That report, he said, “jeopardized my education.”

He shared with The Tribune a letter the school sent to him that included his offenses and punishments, including a temporary ban on enrolling in classes.

Discipline at BYU typically occurs after a student has talked with one of the five investigators in the office. That group then makes a recommendation to the dean of students, who makes the final call. Punishment can include probation, a short-term suspension, a full suspension (which includes eviction from BYU housing) or expulsion.

Another student, a freshman at the Provo campus, said she had been using a legal cannabis compound to relieve her anxiety. Her parents knew about it, and she’d gotten permission from her bishop. But her roommates turned her in to the Honor Code Office after they saw her using a vaporizer for the oils.

She met with an office investigator at the end of March and doesn’t have a decision in her case — even though she no longer uses CBD products on campus.

“I have no clue what’s going to happen,” she said. “I’m scared of any sort of repercussions.”

‘We’re all adults'

Student enthusiasm for reporting each others' offenses may be particularly disadvantageous for those who come from families and communities whose norms differ from those celebrated at church-owned schools, said Joslin Keim, who attended BYU-Idaho for about a year beginning in fall 2017.

Keim was a convert to the church when she moved to Rexburg from "liberal-bubble" Seattle, where there was a vibrant LGBTQ community and pot had been legal since she was in middle school.

She said she expected to find a spectrum of orthodoxy on campus — "Chill people, Jack Mormons, Peter Priesthoods and Molly Mormons." Instead she found herself in a far more conservative campus community than she had anticipated.

Keim gradually picked up on the strictness of certain norms. For example: "Better make sure I don't have sex because that'll get me kicked out," she said. "I'd heard of friends doing that and getting kicked out."

But when someone offered her marijuana, she said, "I thought, 'Oh, it's not a huge deal.' I come from Seattle. It's legal here. I had never really seen it as a bad drug.”

About the same time Keim tried pot, she came out as bisexual.

Keim's roommates reported her to the school. Campus officials disciplined her for using pot, adding: "We're also aware you came out as bisexual. It's making your roommates very uncomfortable. They think you're sexually attracted to them," she said.

"I felt very blindsided," she said — first that pot and bisexuality would be considered serious enough to get her suspended. She transferred to a community college in Seattle.

It also hadn't occurred to her that friends would feel incentivized to inform on each other for what she saw as minor offenses. What was the upside to reporting her to the school, rather than telling her they were uncomfortable?

"When you have issues with someone you should directly confront them,” she said. “We’re all adults.”