Update: Liberty University Threatened with $37.5 Million Clery Fine for Underreported Crimes, Destroyed Evidence
The Education Department found Liberty failed to report dozens of criminal offenses from 2016 to 2020 that included incidents of rape, domestic violence, and stalking.
UPDATE OCTOBER 19, 2023:
Liberty University officials are denying the claims revealed in a damning preliminary and confidential report obtained by the Washington Post that found the school underreported crimes and destroyed evidence. The school alleged the leaked report would impact its negotiations with the U.S. Department of Education and was leaked to “poison the well,” reports Fox News.
“The leak is intentionally aimed at laying the groundwork for an unprecedented fine and the report is filled with factual errors that the Department has admitted to Liberty in their negotiations,” said Liberty President Dr. Dondi Costin.
Liberty also claims it’s been threatened with a $37.5 million fine for its alleged Clery Act violations. Currently, the largest penalty ever assessed against a single institution was $4.5 million against Michigan State University in 2019 over its scandal involving sexual abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar of athletes.
In response to the school’s allegations, a Department of Education official released the following statement to Fox Digital News:
“The U.S. Department of Education’s top priority is protecting safety and academic opportunity for all students at institutions of higher education. We monitor and investigate all safety complaints and take our oversight responsibilities to protect students’ well-being seriously. The Department does not comment on pending institutional oversight activities, program reviews, or investigations. When the Department determines that a regulatory sanction is warranted, such a step would be communicated to the institution first before details are shared with the public.”
ORIGINAL ARTICLE – OCTOBER 5, 2023:
LYNCHBURG, Va. — Liberty University violated federal safety laws for years, failing to warn its community about campus threats and creating a culture that made students fearful of reporting sexual violence, according to a preliminary report from the U.S. Department of Education.
The Washington Post obtained the preliminary and confidential report which was written back in May. In a statement released Tuesday, Liberty confirmed it received the government’s report in May but said it has been corresponding with officials since then about “significant errors, misstatements, and unsupported conclusions in the Department’s preliminary findings.”
The report lists 12 findings which include a lack of administrative capability, inaccurate or inadequate policy disclosures, and a failure to issue timely warnings in connection with the Clery Act. It determined the school violated the Clery Act by failing to warn the campus about gas leaks, bomb threats, people accused of sexual violence, and other potential dangers.
“Victims of sexual assault felt dissuaded by Liberty administration’s reputation for punishing sexual assault survivors rather than helping them,” federal investigators wrote in the report.
The Department found Liberty failed to report dozens of criminal offenses from 2016 to 2020 that included incidents of rape, domestic violence, and stalking. Federal investigators said Liberty didn’t have the resources to investigate campus crimes, noting the university’s investigative unit was “staffed by a single officer for the majority of the review period with few process controls and minimal oversight.”
Allegations of violence reportedly went all the way to the top, including accusations involving a former university president and a senior administrator, USA Today reports. Investigators noted police took a report involving an “alleged rape that was committed by a former Liberty president” but that incident failed to make a daily crime log. The report did not name the president or the outcome of the investigation.
The findings also allege university officials destroyed evidence after federal investigations began and couldn’t provide basic documentation about crime on campus. Investigators discovered that “senior officials in HR sought the assistance of IT staff to wipe certain computer hard drives on April 26, 2022, the very week that the review team first visited the campus.” That particular finding is based on interviews with a former dean and IT staffer and occurred hours after investigators spoke to the university’s executive vice president of human resources about “the importance of maintaining records.”
“It does not appear that any institution-wide record retention program has ever existed at Liberty with respect to its campus security operations, although some individual officers did establish their own guidelines for their operations,” the report read. “Similarly, the university has been unable to provide the basic documentation to substantiate the accuracy and completeness of the university’s campus crime statistics.”
The report also referenced a 2016 incident in which a Liberty police officer noted “stacks of incident reports laying on tables in an unsecured room.” The officer later learned they were to be “shredded.”
S. Daniel Carter, a campus safety consultant, told ABC 13 that the findings against Liberty “are the most damning I’ve ever seen in over 26 years of reviewing these types of investigations.”
“I think the most significant finding is overall that LU lacked a comprehensive report to compliance with the Clery Act, lacked the infrastructure necessary to put everything into place to keep their campus safe,” he continued. “The lack of adequate personnel, the lack of adequate training, lack of adequate authority to comply with the law. Those are the most serious findings.”
Liberty Previously Settled Title IX Lawsuit
Well before the May report was obtained, the school was already facing public scrutiny over its handling of sexual assault cases and policies that sexual assault survivors say allowed sexual violence to continue unimpeded.
In a 2021 investigative report, ProPublica spoke to over 50 former Liberty students and employees and reviewed records from more than a dozen cases. In some cases, former students said they were threatened with punishment for breaking the school’s moral code, called the Liberty Way. The Liberty Way, among other things, includes guidelines for students’ dress and behavior and does not permit sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman.
After reporting their alleged rape, three Liberty students who spoke to ProPublica said they were asked to sign forms that recognized they could be penalized for breaking the school’s ethics code. Two other students said they were penalized after reporting their assaults, including one who said she was fined $500 for alcohol consumption and was ordered to attend counseling. She was allegedly told she would not receive her transcript if she did not pay the fine.
In July 2021, 12 unnamed former students and employees filed a Title IX lawsuit against the school that echoes ProPublica’s findings. The lawsuit claims the school failed to help victims of sexual assault and that its student honor code made assault more likely by making it “difficult or impossible” for students to report sexual violence. The suit claims that the “public and repeated retaliation against women who did report their victimization” created a dangerous campus environment. It also alleges the university had a “tacit policy” of weighing investigations in favor of accused male students.
Liberty reached a settlement in 2022. The terms of the settlement were confidential but the school outlined a number of changes made to improve campus security and how it responds to incidents of sexual harassment or violence. According to the school, it spent over $8.5 million on upgrades while ensuring more licensed mental health providers are available to provide counseling. The university also said last year that it was revising its amnesty policy to “better communicate” that it will not discipline parties who engage in behaviors, in connection with a case of sexual harassment or assault, “that would have otherwise violated its student honor code.”
In recent years, the Education Department has fined schools that failed to comply with the Clery Act, including a $2.4 million fine against Pennsylvania State University in connection with former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky was convicted of molesting multiple children.
In 2019, Michigan State was hit with the largest-ever Clery fine — $4.5 million — in connection with its mishandling of reported sexual abuse by former gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. Nassar pleaded guilty to molesting women and girls under the guise of medical treatment and was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison. He had already been sentenced to 60 years in prison on child pornography charges.
Sarah Mays, a former student who was part of the 2021 lawsuit against Libery but chose not to settle so she could speak freely about her experience, told USA Today that she questions how much impact a fine would have against the school. According to government data, Liberty’s endowment was around $1.6 billion in fiscal year 2020.
“A little fine is not going to make them change their ways,” said Mays. “They can make back any amount of money with a snap of fingers.”
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