BYU pays $800 to promote its response to Honor Code criticisms — but students say the school’s answers don’t match their experiences

Early last week, if you typed “BYU Honor Code Office” into Google, your search would have pulled up 783,000 links.

It would have shown you news coverage about students at Brigham Young University criticizing how the office enforces its code on campus and describing the reforms they seek. But the first result was a Q&A published by the private religious school, where it posed questions to the office director about its policies and he defended them.

That’s because BYU paid about $800 for a Google keyword ad to push its take to the top, “so that people looking for information about our Honor Code Office had a chance to see [the director’s] remarks,” said Joe Hadfield, a spokesman for the school, in an email.

In the piece, Director Kevin Utt said students at the school, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, cannot get in trouble for failing to report misconduct to the office. But some students say, based on their experiences, that those statements aren’t true — that they’ve been forced to turn others in or face consequences. And they’re frustrated that BYU is promoting what they see as misinformation and contradictions.

“There’s a disconnect with what BYU is saying publicly and the concerns that students are bringing up,” said senior Addison Jenkins. “It creates this perception that BYU is just trying to get ahead of the story.”

The Q&A with Utt was posted April 10 — the same day students at the school’s Idaho campus held a protest accusing the institution of caring more about punishing students than helping them, and two days before students at the Provo campus did the same. Many have also been sharing their bad experiences with an Instagram account.

A group of students advocating for reforms is scheduled to meet with BYU administrators in Provo on Tuesday.

‘My worst fear’

Erika Melander turned herself in to the Honor Code Office in 2015, she said, after she went to her bishop to repent and was told she had to tell the university about her sexual contact before he could help her.

The code prohibits premarital sex, sets certain rules for when and how dating occurs, contains a dress code and bans the consumption of alcohol, drugs, coffee and tea.

When Melander talked to an Honor Code staffer, she said, she was told she had to disclose the name of the student she had sex with — or be kicked out.

The staffer continued to press her to give up the man’s name, she said, even after Melander expressed concern that he could be violent toward her if he found out she turned him in. She was told that her fear was unfounded, that the Honor Code turned people around and was a “blessing for everyone.”

“I really, really didn’t want to,” she said. “I cried in the office [and asked], ‘Can I please not tell?’ She said I’d be suspended. That was my worst fear at that time.”

Melander said she was given two days to talk to her ex about it or risk getting into more trouble.

She was suspended that semester, according to a disciplinary letter she shared with The Tribune. The letter includes 13 steps she needed to complete before she could return to BYU, which included hours of community service, journaling, required readings and progress reviews.

She did all that was required of her and went back to BYU in fall 2015. But Melander dropped out soon after and moved back home to Seattle. Her experience with the Honor Code Office made her question her faith, she said, and left her feeling depressed. She has tried taking classes at her local community college, but she feels anxiety about schooling and has panic attacks.

“I’m 22 now, and I’m still technically a freshman,” she said. “It’s something that really stunted my academic growth.”

Carri Jenkins, a BYU spokeswoman, said Melander’s experience does “not reflect our current practice.”

“First of all, if a student reported that they were in an abusive relationship, the review would cease immediately and the case would be referred to Title IX Office,” which handles cases involving sexual harassment and assault, she said. “Second, the Honor Code Office is committed to helping students work through the challenges they are facing and would not probe for a name, except where the reported behavior could impact the physical safety of members of our campus community.”

Other students, though, have said that they also were threatened with further punishment if they did not turn in fellow students for violating the code.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brayden Smith talks about his experience with the Honor Code Office as hundreds of students gather on the campus of Brigham Young University, Friday, April 12, 2019.

Like Melander, BYU alumnus Brayden Smith said he turned himself in to the Honor Code Office for having sexual contact with a fellow 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.

He said he was told the office looks at “willingness to comply” — and if he didn’t give up her name, he wasn’t really complying, Smith told The Tribune at the BYU rally earlier this month.

“They know no bounds in terms of what they feel like they can and can’t ask,” he said. “To them, the Honor Code is something you have signed, you have agreed to, and they reserve the right to do whatever they want to you because you broke it.”

Contradictions on BYU’s website?

Part of the frustration students have, beyond their own encounters with the office, is that in other places on BYU’s website there are statements that seem at odds with the promoted Q&A. In a student housing guide, under the subsection “Honoring the Honor Code,” it says “the most difficult part of living the Honor Code is standing up to roommates who may be breaking it.”

First, it asks students to talk to their roommates about potential violations. Then, “if a roommate’s behavior does not change after this,” it says to contact the landlord or the Honor Code Office and file a report.

In his piece, Utt noted that one principle of the Honor Code urges students to “encourage others in their commitment to comply” with its rules. He added: “Encourage is not synonymous with ‘turn someone in.’”

But students worried about that housing application have posted on social media that they feared they might be kicked out of their apartment if they didn’t follow its mandate.

Most of the conflicting statements students pointed out are on housing applications for living both on and off campus. A violation form found on the school’s housing website said that students “must make a report to the university” if they become aware of a violation of the Honor Code.

That form was updated Tuesday, said Jenkins, the spokeswoman, after the university saw “some of the confusion expressed.” But it still says that students who witness violations “must support the [property] owner by providing testimony against the offenders.”

Another housing form for the 2019-2020 school year that hasn’t changed says the student renter “agrees to notify the landlord in writing about any needed repairs or violations of the Honor Code.”

Jenkins said those examples are “not a contradiction.”

“Every university code of conduct office has a process for submitting reports, whether it is self-reporting or reporting of others,” she added in an email. “This is true for the on and off campus housing websites, which provide a way for students to report but doesn’t require it.”

Additionally, though, on the Honor Code Office’s website there’s a tab called “Reporting Others.” It states: “Part of our commitment to the Honor Code is supporting others in their commitments as well. That effort may necessitate reporting behavior that is not in harmony with the standards of BYU.”

“Necessitate,” some students say, feels stronger than “encourage.”

In the Q&A, it says most cases handled by the Provo campus office are initiated by students reporting themselves, 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, Utt said.

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

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.

‘A culture of that’

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) In this June 28, 2018 photo, Addison Jenkins attends a meeting in Provo, Utah.

Addison Jenkins, the senior at BYU, was living in off-campus, BYU-approved housing in 2013-2014. One of his roommates came home late one night and brought a woman with him into the apartment after visiting hours — which end at midnight on weekdays, according to the Honor Code.

Jenkins had always seen the cameras in the interior hallways but didn’t think they were monitored. But the next morning, all of the men who lived there got an email from the landlord. The subject line was “Honor Code Violation.”

“It has come to our attention that a roommate has violated BYU’s and our policies. A woman and man are seen entering the apt this morning around 2:00 a.m. Which roommate is the responsible party?”

Jenkins said he felt pressured and “under threat to report” which of his roommates it was so he could stay in the apartment.

“There is a culture of that here,” he added. “The Honor Code emboldens and empowers people who feel it necessary to be an extension of the office to police their fellow students’ behaviors.”

The school’s spokeswoman referred to Utt’s statement in the Q&A about interpreting the word “encourage,” where Utt added: “Encourage is a verb that means to give support, confidence or hope to someone.”

Jenkins, though, was also turned in by someone in January 2016 for allegedly having “a sexual relationship with one or more male BYU students.” The office ultimately found that wasn’t likely and decided not to discipline him. But he didn’t like the idea that someone would report him without saying something directly to him.

And, he said, someone has been reporting his tweets to administrators.

Some of that reporting behavior, Jenkins believes, is encouraged by the school. The Q&A, he said, is a good step forward to correcting that culture and explaining to students that they’re not required to turn in others — but the language throughout the school’s website needs to be adjusted to match. And the school itself, he said, needs to do more to address the underlying issues with Honor Code enforcement.

“Publicly, BYU has not done anything to indicate that they are aware of the gravity of the problems that have been longstanding with the Honor Code Office,” Jenkins said. “Clearly, there have been serious problems with this.”