BYU begins to update how it enforces its Honor Code. Some students say, so far, the religious school is doing ‘the bare minimum.’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of students gather on the campus of Brigham Young University for a rally to oppose how the school's Honor Code Office investigates and disciplines students on Friday, April 12, 2019, in Provo, Utah.

Brigham Young University announced Tuesday that it has begun updating how it enforces its strict Honor Code — a move that comes a little more than a month after students at the private religious campus protested how they’ve been treated.

The director of the Honor Code Office, Kevin Utt, wrote in a letter sent out across campus that the school is just at the start of a process to improve its work. The biggest change will be “increased transparency,” he said, to reduce the anxiety students have told him that they and others feel when going into the office.

His three bullet points listing what he calls “improvements” so far are narrowly focused on one issue: What information the office will share with students who are accused of or self-report misconduct.

Without specifying what has changed, Utt described how the discipline process now begins. For example, he said that students will be told “the nature of the reported violation” and given an explanation of how the investigation will proceed at the beginning of their meeting.

BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins clarified that students haven’t always had that information before they were asked questions, and it’s been a common complaint the school has heard as it has reviewed its policies.

“I want students to be respected and treated fairly throughout their interaction with this office,” Utt wrote. “I understand the concerns that have been raised with some of our procedures, which we will continue to address in the months ahead.”

The Honor Code at the school, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 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.

Overall, some students have said they feel the school cares more about punishing those who violate the rules than helping them. Their objections focus on how the school responds to allegations of misconduct and imposes punishment — not on the Honor Code itself.

Some students have told The Salt Lake Tribune that when they were called in to the Honor Code Office, they didn’t know what they would be asked or how they could be punished.

Emma Williams, a rising sophomore at BYU who had her own experience with the Honor Code, said she wasn’t sure what to expect when she was called in for an alleged violation this past school year. Once there, she said, the allegation wasn’t explained; but she was able to piece it together through the office’s questions.

She feared she might be suspended, too, but she wasn’t clear on what the potential punishments were.

When she saw Utt’s email Tuesday, she thought it was her conclusion letter from the office confirming that she was cleared. She was happy to see the changes announced but wishes they went further.

“It’s kind of the bare minimum,” Williams said. “It’s still a good change, but very, very minor. The Honor Code has notoriously been against gay people and African American students. I think that’s the most important thing that they’re not addressing.”

Those were among concerns expressed at the protest at the school last month — and on a popular Instagram account — including by a student of color who said he was reported for dying his hair blond and an LGBT student who said he was turned in for holding hands with a platonic friend.

In his first bullet point, Utt assured students they "will NOT be presumed in violation of an Honor Code policy unless you either accept responsibility or the investigation process makes such a determination.”

Utt said at the first meeting with the office, students will be given “an explanation regarding what the investigation process entails and support resources that are available to you as you participate in the process. This includes an explanation of the steps we will take to find information that corroborates or disputes the original report; the preponderance of evidence standard that universities use; and the possible outcomes if found responsible for the policy violation.”

He also said students will be told the name of the person who reported their alleged violation, except in situations where safety is a concern. That isn’t a new change; Jenkins has previously said the school has not acted on anonymous reports, except where the reported behavior raises a safety issue, since at least 2008, and that the existing policy to share a reporting student’s name with the same exception has evolved in recent years.

Jenkins said students were previously able to ask who reported them, but now providing the name will be a formal part of the process. She added: “It will be under very rare circumstances that a name is withheld.

“We believe that if students know their names will be shared with a reported person, this will lead to more honest and direct communication between students, such as roommates, about concerns they may have with one another.”

When organizing the protest on campus, students had asked to end anonymous reporting — which they said had been used at times like blackmail — except when a student has been the victim of assault or abuse. They 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 improved training.

Lizzie Mukai, a sophomore, said she appreciates the moves to add more transparency.

“I’m very glad that it’s established that there will be a direct explanation about what’s going on,” she said. “Part of the benefit of such an approach is the concept of students being presumed innocent until proven or confessed otherwise.”

Calvin Burke, who also goes to BYU, said he’s grateful for the dialogue. But, like Williams, he wants the new updates to be seen only as a starting place.

“Though they are welcome, these announced changes still do not address many of the abuses or mitigate much of the pain being caused especially to the marginalized segments of our student body,” he said. “I’m concerned there isn’t any oversight to ensure policy changes are implemented and carried out. The crisis of trust on campus is still profound.”

Burke said he’ll be watching for the future changes that Utt promised in his letter were still coming.

Utt, who was hired as director in January, said he has talked to hundreds of students about other forthcoming fixes.

He wrote: “The constructive dialogue that I and others are having with students is helpful as we continue to refine our policies, trainings and practices.”

He noted some of the changes that have already been made at the Honor Code Office. Utt reminded students that reports of sexual misconduct are not handled by the Honor Code Office but instead by the Title IX Office. That policy was changed in 2016 as part of sweeping reform where BYU granted amnesty to students reporting abuse.

And he credits the university for recently updating student housing forms to remove “confusing language” that contradicts the Honor Code. Those documents previously told students that they “must make a report to the university” if their roommates violated the code. Utt said last month that encouraging individuals to comply with the Honor Code is “not synonymous with ‘turn someone in.’”

Overall, Jenkins said, the letter sent out Tuesday was meant to show students that BYU is making adjustments and willing to talk about those. “We do not look at this letter today as a major announcement," she added. "This is part of our commitment to our students for increased dialogue and greater communication.”