Brigham Young University announces more Honor Code updates — promising to tell students what they’re accused of

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) In this April 12, 2019 photo, Sidney Draughon chants along with hundreds of students on the campus of Brigham Young University to oppose how the school's Honor Code Office investigates and disciplines students, in Provo, Utah. The university has updated its honor code process following widespread student criticism that the process lacks transparency and compassion, announcing the changes Wednesday, July 10, 2019. They include an "innocent until proven guilty" policy and allow someone to accompany students in honor code meetings. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owns the institution.

Brigham Young University announced more updates Wednesday to how it enforces its strict Honor Code — this time promising to tell students what misconduct they are accused of before calling them in for questioning.

The latest changes come four months after students at the private religious campus demonstrated against how the Provo school disciplines those who break its rules. And the response from BYU is part of a larger effort to improve the process as a result of continued conversations with those who took part in the rare protest and others.

“Our review of how we serve students showed the importance of clear communication from our office,” Kevin Utt, director of the Honor Code Office, said in a written statement.

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.

The newest update focuses on one of the biggest concerns that students have raised about enforcement: not knowing what policy they are suspected of breaking before they have to meet with an administrator to discuss their actions. Previously, students would receive a generic phone call asking them to schedule an appointment with the Honor Code Office to discuss a reported problem.

They would be told what they were accused of only once they came in for the meeting.

“That makes it much more of an interrogation tactic,” said Addison Jenkins, a former BYU student who was reported to the office because he was suspected of having a gay relationship when he was taking classes there. He learned of the charge when he was sitting face to face with an office employee.

Jenkins said the staffer told him that was part of the process so the office could “gauge your body language and reaction as a way of discerning your culpability or guilt.”

Now, when students are accused of misconduct, they will receive a detailed letter specifying what part of the code of conduct they allegedly broke, the announcement from BYU said. And they must log in to the school’s system to view it.

It adds: “The secure letter will state the reported misconduct and include additional information about a student’s rights within the process. Alternatively, the letter may state that they are invited to meet with an administrator only as a witness.”

Utt said he hopes the change — which comes about two weeks before classes start on Sept. 3 — will increase transparency around the Honor Code process, as well as reduce anxiety that students feel when called in to the office. They can also better prepare for their meeting — which many said they didn’t have a chance to do before.

Utt became director in January and began a review of all office policies and practices for the campus of 33,000 students.

“This is a pretty big improvement,” Jenkins said. “I think that BYU owes a huge debt of gratitude to the students who have organized and brought this to the community’s attention and kept up the dialogue and pressure to make sure things changed."

The new system will also track cases so that, over time, the office can “measure staff performance and look for important patterns,” the new release said. Staff will “assess whether student misconduct cases are being handled in a timely and consistent manner for all students.”

Some cases will be referred to BYU’s Center for Conflict Resolution to be worked out there instead of going through the Honor Code process — particularly those that involve roommate conflicts where rules were not broken.

Emma Williams, a rising sophomore at BYU who had her own experience with the Honor Code, said the school should have been telling students what they were accused from the beginning.

“It is much more to-the-point for those being accused," she said, “and shortens the incredible anxiety-inducing waiting period to find out what they ‘did wrong.' ”

She wasn’t sure what to expect when she was called in for an alleged violation this past school year. Once there, Williams said, the allegation wasn’t immediately explained; but she was able to piece it together through the office’s questions.

Sam, a student whom The Salt Lake Tribune has agreed to identify by his first name because he fears being turned in to the office, said he’s happy to see the changes, but added that they should have already been in place. He would like to see more updates to specifically address LGBTQ students, who have reported being targeted with extra scrutiny by the Honor Code Office, and were a driving force behind the protest in April.

“I have friends who are constantly anxious because of past or current relationships,” he said. “I have gay friends who are anxious because they’ve been blackmailed by their assaulters with the Honor Code Office. … I am grateful for the changes and updates, but BYU hasn’t addressed the real problem.”

Calvin Burke, a gay student, said the Honor Code Office has for years been “a place of pain” for some students. A few have been turned in for holding hands with a platonic friend. Most don’t know exactly what the rules are for LGBTQ relationships, students have previously told The Tribune.

The school’s Honor Code forbids “not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.” But where is the line? Can students still be in a relationship if they just don’t physically express affection?

“I am still hopeful, though, that we’ll be able to align the Honor Code Office with the teachings of Jesus, and make it a place of mercy, where people can go to heal, learn and improve,” Burke said. "I don’t think we are quite there yet, but this is a great step. I look forward to more great steps in the future.”

The school announced other changes in May and July. Those included giving students an explanation of how an Honor Code investigation will proceed at the beginning of their meeting, not presuming a student is guilty, and letting a student know the name of the person who reported the alleged violation. The school also has started allowing a second person to accompany students in Honor Code meetings and stopped calling Honor Code Office employees “counselors.”

In 2016, BYU granted amnesty for Honor Code violations to students reporting sexual assaults after victims said they were being punished. Their cases now are separately handled by the Title IX Office.

Some of the updates have addressed what more than 500 students protested about in April, as well as stories shared by a popular Instagram account addressing the code. Overall, the participants said they felt the school cares more about punishing those who violate the rules than helping them.

One student said he was threatened with discipline for dyeing his hair blond, which Honor Code officials apparently said was an “unnatural” shade for the student of color. Another said she was accused of cheating and wasn’t believed when she said she didn’t. The alumna who started the Instagram account said she was turned in for breaking the dress standards — based on a photo she had on social media from high school.

Their objections focused on how BYU responds to allegations of misconduct and imposes punishment, not on the requirements of the Honor Code itself. Discipline can range from probation to suspension to expulsion. And a big complaint was that the campus fosters a culture of students turning in one another.

Riley Madrian, a student who now leads the Restore Honor group that has worked to bring about changes, said she looks forward to future changes from the administration.

She noted: “This is the latest in several changes that BYU has announced over the last few months, and it shows that BYU is interested in creating positive change in regards to its Honor Code Office.”