Liberty University’s Handling of Sexual Assaults Under Investigation by Department of Education
This story was published by ProPublica. It is reprinted with permission. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive their biggest stories as soon as they’re published.
The federal Department of Education has begun investigating Liberty University’s handling of student reports of sexual assault. In a statement to ProPublica, the school pledged its “full cooperation” with the investigation.
Last October, ProPublica revealed how the school, which was founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell, had discouraged students who tried to report being sexually assaulted. Some students who came forward were encouraged to sign forms acknowledging they might have broken Liberty’s moral code of conduct, “The Liberty Way.” Others described being encouraged to pray instead of reporting their cases.
Federal law requires that universities receiving federal funds properly handle claims of sexual assault. Liberty students receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid. Following our story, senators urged the U.S. Department of Education to investigate.
Liberty students told ProPublica that federal agents have been at the school’s campus in Lynchburg, Virginia, this week. In an email viewed by ProPublica, a Department of Education official reached out to student advocates to arrange meeting times. An agency spokesperson declined to comment, citing a policy not to discuss ongoing investigations.
“Liberty University welcomes the U.S. Department of Education’s review of our Clery Act compliance program,” the university said in its statement to ProPublica. The federal Clery Act requires schools to inform students who report sexual assaults about the option of going to law enforcement and to assist in that reporting if necessary.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., one of the senators who had called for the investigation, praised the government’s move. “I’m glad the Department of Education is investigating Liberty’s handling of sexual assault,” he said in a statement to ProPublica. “I hope the Department looks into it thoroughly.”
In another development, an unnamed former Liberty University student filed a federal lawsuit against the school on Wednesday, claiming the university failed to properly investigate after she reported a rape to school authorities a year ago. The plaintiff also alleged that when she reported being sexually assaulted, she was penalized by the school for violating The Liberty Way, because she had been at a party where alcohol was consumed.
A spokesperson for Liberty declined to comment on the suit.
In November, two weeks after ProPublica’s investigation, Liberty pledged to launch an “independent and comprehensive review” of the school office tasked with handling discrimination and abuse. The school has not responded to ProPublica’s request for an update on the status of that review.