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BYU’s 5-year cover-up of its abuse of police power can’t be excused or forgotten, Editorial Board writes

University misled the state and the public about victimizing students who were already victims of sexual assault

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pictures of the Brigham Young University (BYU).

After five years of a grinding and expensive legal battle involving The Salt Lake Tribune and Brigham Young University, the infuriating but unsurprising truth is finally coming out.

It was not, as the school claimed, a single rogue BYU police officer who went rummaging around in the confidential files of other police agencies to report information on individual students he found to the school’s Honor Code Office.

It was an established procedure at the school, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to dig into those records in search of weapons to be used to intimidate, punish and expel female students for minor transgressions, for speaking out or, chillingly, for being the victim of a sexual assault.

Reporting in 2016 on the mistreatment of sexual assault victims at BYU and at Utah State University won The Tribune staff the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. But the efforts of The Tribune’s news staff, ownership — and attorneys — did not end there.

The Tribune’s reporting rightly caught the attention of the Utah Department of Public Safety and its commissioner, Jess Anderson.

Anderson’s portfolio includes oversight of all of the state’s police departments, holding them to the law and ethical standards. These standards were apparently violated by the BYU Police Department’s habit of feeding nonpublic information to the school’s administration and Honor Code Office.

That behavior, compounded by BYU’s failure to conduct its own internal investigation or cooperate with Anderson’s, led the DPS boss to move to decertify the BYU Police Department for noncompliance with laws and procedures. BYU not only fought that action, it also claimed, as a private, nongovernmental entity, it was not subject to requests for information filed both by The Tribune and the DPS under the state’s Government Records and Access Management Act.

The DPS lost in its effort to decertify the BYU Police Department, with an administrative law judge complaining that state laws governing the behavior of police departments such as BYU’s were maddeningly vague. The Utah Legislature did properly step in and pass a law making clear that BYU police are, indeed, subject to GRAMA — the price of getting to act as a legally constituted police department — as well as legislation clarifying the ability of DPS to audit the performance of such agencies.

After the DPS investigation was closed, though, BYU continued to refuse to release depositions and other records created in the course of the state’s investigation, claiming that it all happened prior to the law placing BYU police under the authority of GRAMA.

The matter went to court and, in September, the newspaper, the state and the school found a path forward, which resulted in release of depositions and other records — redacted to protect personal privacy — that, quite frankly, explain why BYU was so keen to keep them under wraps.

Piecing together the state investigative record with The Tribune’s own reporting — particularly interviews with women who were victimized by the breach of confidentiality — it becomes clear it was standard operating procedure for a particular BYU police lieutenant to poke around in the restricted databases of other police agencies in search of information that could embarrass BYU students and cause them to be accused of violating the school’s Honor Code.

As The Tribune’s reporting established in 2016, women who reported being the victims of sexual assault found themselves on the defensive when the BYU Honor Code office somehow had knowledge of details of their case and used them to charge the victims of violations such as drinking alcohol or being in their rooms with men they were not married to.

Some of the ill-gotten information found its way to Sarah Westerberg, then associate dean of students, who used it to interrogate students suspected of Honor Code violations, when what she really should have been doing was offering assistance to students who had been assaulted. This shows that the improper searches were systemic at BYU. That Westerberg later was promoted to dean of students suggests the school still does not fully grasp just how wrong that policy was.

Understanding that perpetrators of sexual assault could silence their victims by threatening to report them for Honor Code violations, subjecting them to everything from embarrassing interviews to expulsion, makes BYU women particularly vulnerable to sex crimes.

BYU has pledged to end such unethical behavior and keep its police functions separate from its internal discipline regime. Which is good.

But the fact that the school fought so long and so hard to keep its past behavior a secret — clearly hoping that The Tribune would lose interest, tire of legal expenses and go away — shows that continued oversight is called for. By the state. By those who love BYU. And by The Salt Lake Tribune.

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