Lawsuits against Liberty prompt Dept. of Ed to investigate

Liberty University is under fire, facing a barrage of allegations that it mishandled sexual assault claims for years, discouraged complainants from coming forward and discriminated against LGBTQ+ students, even allegedly pushing some to undergo conversion therapy. Plaintiffs have filed three separate lawsuits against the university since July, raising alarm at the Department of Education.

Now Liberty University is under investigation on multiple fronts.

In the first lawsuit, filed by 12 women in July, the plaintiffs stated that they were discouraged from reporting incidents of sexual assault or punished for violating Liberty’s honor code when they came forward with their complaints. They accuse Liberty of creating an unsafe environment and weaponizing its honor code them, focusing on student conduct violations against such as drinking and engaging in premarital sex instead of on the alleged sexual assaults. The accusations in that lawsuit span more than 15 years, beginning in 2000.

Female plaintiffs filed lawsuits in November and late April. Though separate from the initial lawsuit, the complaints are remarkably similar, with the former students alleging that Liberty failed to adequately investigate claims of sexual assault, instead fixating on the women’s behavior and violations of LU’s honor code known as the “Liberty Way.”

According to court documents, women allege that they were threatened, stalked, beaten, drugged, “brutally raped” and even, in one case, impregnated by a perpetrator. Court documents further allege that the Liberty University Police Department pressured women to drop claims, threatened to charge a complainant for filing a false report and failed to adequately investigate incidents.

Beyond the review of Cleary Act compliance at Liberty, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened a separate investigation last week into complaints made by a former student alleging that Liberty’s policies and practices discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

Now the evangelical university founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell faces a pair of investigations amid growing scrutiny of how it has allegedly mishandled Title IX issues for years.

Clear Compliance Review

Despite multiple requests for comment, Liberty University did not respond to questions about the ongoing review of Cleary Act compliance. The Cleary Act requires colleges to inform sexual assault victims of the option of reporting such actions to law enforcement, and it mandates that colleges disclose campus crime statistics and other relevant information related to campus safety as a condition of participation in federal financial aid programs.

Liberty did, however, provide a statement to local TV station WDBJ7: “Liberty University welcomes the US Department of Education’s review of our Cleary Act compliance program. We have pledged our full cooperation and look forward to the opportunity to strengthen and enhance our program through this assessment process. We have also committed to work collaboratively with the Department to address any potential compliance gaps identified through the review. The University supports and embraces both the letter and the spirit of the Cleary Act, which is ‘to provide students, employees and their families with accurate, complete and timely information about campus safety to better inform future decisions.’ Our Cleary Compliance Officer, in the Office of Equity and Compliance, works closely with the Liberty University Police Department and campus partners to prioritize campus safety and fulfill the requirements of the Cleary Act.”

Save 71, a group of outspoken alumni intent on reforming Liberty, claimed that the Department of Education has twice visited campus in recent weeks to interview employees. More than 70 employees are expected to be interviewed, according to the alumni group.

S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, notes that campus crime program reviews, like the one at Liberty, are rare and extremely demanding.

“In a campus crime program review, the United States Department of Education explores just about every aspect of how a college or university prevents, responds to and reports campus crime,” Carter said. “They will request thousands and thousands of documents and potentially interview hundreds of officials and students. It’s a very exhaustive process designed to assess not only the basics—are crimes being properly reflected in statistics? But also are crimes being processed in the manner in which the institution says they will be in their Cleary report? And that includes handling reports of sexual assault in a consistent manner with what they say they are doing and with what the federal Cleary Act requires that they do.”

Carter, a Title IX expert, said that the Department of Education doesn’t release exact numbers on how many investigations are ongoing, but he believes it to be no more than a dozen at a time.

“In order for an institution to be the focus of the campus crime program review, the claims and concerns have to be amongst the most serious that you can get,” Carter said.

While the Department of Education can level fines for Cleary Act violations—$62,689 for each violation found—Carter said the end goal isn’t to be punitive but to improve student safety. And if even one of the many claims against Liberty is true, that improvement is necessary.

“Ultimately, there needs to be a culture shift,” he said. “Because so long as the viewpoint is that it is the victim’s fault, I don’t think any amount of other changes are going to make a difference; No rules changes, no personnel changes—there has to be a profound cultural change.”

The OCR Investigation

Liberty also ignored multiple requests for comment about an investigation by the Office for Civil Rights regarding allegations that it discriminated against students based on sexual orientation.

That investigation, launched last week, stems from efforts by a group called the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, which aims to use civil rights litigation to take on institutions it believes discriminate against LGBTQ+ students. REAP has alleged “rampant discrimination, abuse and mistreatment” of LGBTQ+ students at the hands of religious institutions.

Last year REAP sued the Education Department, seeking to hold it accountable for providing religious exemptions to a federal law that bars sex-based discrimination in higher education.

According to a copy of the investigation letter shared by REAP, the Office for Civil Rights is looking into whether Liberty “discriminates against LGBTQ+ students through its policies and practices, including the statement on Sexuality and Relationships in the Student Honor Code and the role of the on-campus group called Armor Bearers.” Former students have alleged that the Armor Bearers is a conversion therapy program.

“I am beyond delighted that Liberty is (finally) being investigated for its conversion therapy program—a program that was in operation for over a decade,” said Luke Wilson, a former Liberty student and one of more than 30 plaintiffs in REAP’s lawsuit, according to a news release. “As a survivor of Liberty’s one-on-one conversion therapy program and as one who went to one of the group conversion therapy meetings on campus, I have since worked to raise awareness about this heinous practice that has ravaged the lives of countless queer Liberty students.”

Fallout From the Lawsuits

The only statement Liberty University provided Inside Higher Ed came in response to the most recent lawsuit, filed April 27, which accused LU of mishandling a reported sexual assault by treating the victim with “systematic deliberate indifference” and retaliating against her. The lawsuit alleges that Liberty failed to investigate and report the incident and did not provide services or accommodations as required by Title IX, ultimately leading the plaintiff to drop out and go to another college.

“The university has not reviewed the lawsuit and therefore declines to make a specific, public comment on the suit at this time. Liberty University will certainly address these claims in court,” a university spokesperson, who declined to be identified, said in an emailed statement.

The spokesperson shared prior statements issued by LU president Jerry Prevo following scrutiny that emerged from the media coverage of complainants who claimed Liberty them.

In one statement dated Oct. 26, 2021, Prevo wrote, “The Liberty Way should never be misused to cover up wrongdoing. It is also the case that as a Christian university we will remain unwavering in our commitment to cultivating a culture in our Liberty community that honors God’s Word and embraces God’s principles for life. While ‘The Liberty Way’ must never be used to discourage victims from reporting wrongdoing, we also believe that we do not have to choose between embracing our code of conduct as a Christian university and in complying with our legal Title IX obligations. We can do both at the same time, and we will do so.”

Liberty also announced last November that it would launch an independent review of its Title IX processes and install additional cameras and other safety features on campus, according to local media.

Months later, students say those are all empty promises.

“There has been radio silence on the university’s part,” said Hailey Wilkinson, a senior and member of Liberty Students Against Abuse, a yet-to-be-recognized student organization.

Wilkinson said the university has been less than forthcoming about a third-party audit of its Title IX policies and processes, and that Prevo has pushed back on student demands to do better.

“Personally, I’ve had Jerry Prevo telling me to give him more time and to stop pushing so hard,” Wilkinson said. “Obviously, that has not stopped, and we will not stop.”

Wilkinson suggests that the lack of transparency from university officials has left many women feeling unsafe at Liberty.

Another female student reported being sexually assaulted off campus on April 29, and an investigation is now underway, according to WSET, a local TV station.

Virginia senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner both called for the Department of Education to investigate Liberty in November, when media coverage of sexual misconduct claims sparked scrutiny of the Lynchburg university. Now that it’s underway, both senators told Inside Higher Ed via emailed statements that they welcome the investigation, and they praised the courage of those who spoke up on the issue.

“I’m glad the Department of Education is investigating Liberty’s handling of sexual assault. I hope the Department looks into it thoroughly,” Kaine wrote. “As I’ve said, any campus policy that deters or discourages a survivor of sexual assault from speaking out and seeking justice is wrong. Students who bravely speak out deserve to be heard and to have their claims taken seriously.”

A statement from Warner’s office struck a similar tone.

“I’m disturbed by the claims against Liberty University of mishandled reports of sexual assault. For the last several months, I’ve been calling for accountability and action,” Warner said. “I commend the Department of Education for launching an investigation into whether Liberty University violated its legal and moral obligations to protect victims of assault. I expect the university to fully comply, and I’ll be closely following the outcome of this investigation. I applaud the bravery of survivors for coming forward and fighting for the justice they are owed.”

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