Provo • She climbed onto a table, her legs shaking, and looked out over the hundreds of students standing on the grass at Brigham Young University. After taking a deep breath, she told them: “I was raped off campus.”
“But,” sophomore Franchesca Lopez quickly added, trying to choke back tears, “I haven’t felt safe to report that since I’ve been here. The Honor Code Office has made me feel like I’m not worthy.”
Those around her shouted back, “You are worthy. You are.”
When Lopez stepped down, the line of students behind her inched forward. They were ready to share their own experiences of being punished for breaking the private religious school’s strict code of conduct, or how they’ve been afraid of the consequences for turning themselves in, even when they weren’t at fault.
One freshman said investigators at the office found she was “likely to have cheated,” though there wasn’t any evidence, and said she wasn’t allowed to appeal. A gay student said he was reported by another student and investigated after the office incorrectly noted that he had "a sexual relationship with one or more male BYU students.” And an athlete said he was called in and threatened with discipline for dyeing his hair blond, which officials apparently said was an “unnatural” shade for the student of color.
The rally Friday — 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 bans the consumptions of alcohol, drugs, coffee and tea.
About 500 participants gathered as some waved signs below the backdrop of the mountain emblazoned with the school’s signature “Y.” Between chants of “Bring Honor to the HCO” and “We have a voice,” the students broke out into church hymns.
“As I have loved you,” they harmonized, “love one another.”
The two-hour demonstration came after renewed criticism that BYU, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, cares more about punishing those who violate its rules than helping them. Especially in the last week, several current and former students have been sharing their stories on social media, including accounts of being suspended for minor violations.
“It’s almost hurtful to see how many people relate, but it’s a comfort, too,” alumna Sidney Draughon told The Salt Lake Tribune. She started an Instagram campaign to publish her experience and ask others to post theirs. It drew a flood of responses and led students to unite on campus in solidarity.
“We came here because we want to be better people and we are not going to leave,” Draughon told the crowd at the rally, after catching a red-eye flight from New York City on Thursday night.
The students organized outside the Wilkinson Student Center, where the Honor Code Office is located, and wrote letters to the administrators inside about ways the university could be more understanding of violations and less stringent with discipline. “I was falsely accused,” one student wrote. “My roommate turned me in,” penned another.
Others kneeled in the grass to make posters that said, “What would Jesus do?”
Several students walked past the protest and a few looked down from the balcony of the student center, named for Ernest L. Wilkinson — a past university president who bolstered the Honor Code during his tenure.
Most of the students who are sharing their stories say they support the church, BYU and the Honor Code. Their objections focus on how the school responds to allegations of misconduct and imposes punishment, which can range from being put on probation to being suspended, sometimes for multiple years, to being expelled.
BYU administrators have reached out to several students in the past week to talk about their concerns. In a statement Friday, the school said it expects ongoing dialogue “will lead to a better understanding of how the Honor Code Office can best serve our students.”
The statement added: “BYU cares deeply about the welfare of our students. We want every one of them to have a positive experience at BYU. ... These conversations have been very constructive, as students have shared with us their concern for certain processes within the Honor Code Office.”
The Provo rally follows a similar protest at the school’s Idaho campus Wednesday, where officials declined to meet with those who came to their offices to talk.
The organizers at both locations want to do away with anonymous reporting of student misconduct, allowing it only when a student has been the victim of assault or abuse. Kevin Utt, director of the Honor Code Office on the Provo campus, said this week that is the general policy there. The Idaho campus appears to not have the same policy.
Organizers also want students to be able to bring in peer and faculty witnesses during the disciplinary process, and they want Honor Code administrators to receive better training. BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said most are not licensed therapists, though the school calls them “counselors,” but they do receive training.
Many also are asking 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.
The students who planned the event said they were surprised by the large and vocal crowd.
“We don’t want it to die out,” said freshman organizer Grant Frazier. “This isn’t the end today. This is the start of something big.”
But some of the issues raised by students don’t reflect current practices, Jenkins said.
“The policy that we do not act on anonymous reports, except where the reported behavior could impact the physical safety of members of our campus community, has been in place since at least 2008,” she said in an email. “What has been evolving since then is the current practice of sharing the reporting person’s name with a student.”
University officials have also told students who met with them this week that they don’t force or encourage students to turn each other in — but BYU alumnus Brayden Smith said that wasn’t his experience.
Smith turned himself in to the Honor Code Office as a student, he said, and told staff there about a sexual encounter he had with a female student. He said the investigator demanded to know who the student was. He at first refused to tell, asking if it would make his punishment more severe if he did not turn her in as well.
“One thing we do look at is your willingness to comply,” Smith recalled the investigator telling him. “If you aren’t willing to give me her name, that’s not really complying.”
Smith finally told the investigator the student’s first name, which was generic. He said the experience left him with lasting scars and made him feel that those who worked in the office had no boundaries in what information they demanded from students.
Most Honor Code cases handled by the Provo campus office involve students reporting themselves, like Smith did, according to the university.
Utt said this week that the “vast majority” of the students reviewed by the office remain enrolled. On average, between 10 and 15 students are expelled a year, from a population of 33,000 students, he said. On Friday, Jenkins added that an annual average of between 40 and 50 students have been temporarily suspended during the last three years, with more than 80 percent choosing to return.
But some students say their Honor Code experiences drove them away the private university. Brynn Adams, who uses they and them pronouns, said they transferred to the University of Utah after three years at BYU because of how they were treated after they came out as gay.
Adams said it was important to stand on their former school grounds in protest to be a voice for those who are too scared to stand up for themselves for fear of retaliation.
“I am a body that BYU can’t affect anymore,” Adams said. “And most bodies here are taking a huge risk being here. It is a risk to be here, and BYU can come down on them for it, but they can’t come down on me.”
Calvin, a student who asked to only be identified by his first name because he fears being turned in to the office, said he has several LGBT friends who were too scared to attend the rally for the same reason. As a gay student, he said, he was also “terrified of being reported” but came anyway.
“We absolutely need change on campus,” he added, holding a poster with a scripture from the Bible about love.
One BYU professor stood at the back of the rally. The man, who said his name couldn’t be printed without permission from the university, said he doesn’t report his students to the Honor Code Office because of how the investigators treat students there.
“I fear for their safety,” he said. “I have to see that something changes.”
Criticism of Honor Code enforcement has not been unanimous on campus. During a five-minute moment of silence for LGBTQ students, who have complained of being targeted with extra scrutiny, someone yelled from a nearby building: “If you don’t like the Honor Code, go to a different school."
The calls for change have been gaining traction since last month, after several former BYU athletes took to social media expressing their frustration with the way the school has handled investigations into alleged student misconduct. One of them, former football player Derik Stevenson, spoke at the rally and shared how he did not seek treatment for a painkiller addiction in college for fear of Honor Code discipline.
“I wish I was as brave as you guys are when I was at this school,” Stevenson told the crowd of students.
Stevenson and other 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 Honor Code investigators.
As part of sweeping reform in 2016, BYU granted amnesty for Honor Code violations to students reporting sexual abuse. Some students say 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.
Lopez, who said she was raped and has been afraid to report it, suggested the culture in the office needs further change before she would feel comfortable talking to the investigators there.
“I hope the Honor Code Office and the administration listens,” she said. Her poster read: “The HCO should scare rapists not rape survivors.”
Ron Weaver III, the sophomore who was reported for dyeing his hair, added that he believes the school needs to stop treating “repentance as punishment.”
After the two spoke, Addison Jenkins, the student who was reported for having a gay relationship, climbed onto the same table and asked the crowd: “Who here has been impacted by the Honor Code?”
Hundreds of students called back in response. In some way, they felt, they all have.
April 15, 2019, 11:38 a.m. • An earlier version of this story misspelled Tyler Slade’s name in a photo caption.