Citing possible violations of federal law, three senators, including the two from Virginia, are pressing the U.S. Department of Education to investigate Liberty University’s handling of sexual assault claims.
Liberty’s board also voted Friday to open an “independent and comprehensive review” of the school office tasked with handling discrimination and abuse.
The review and congressional calls for a federal investigation come in the wake of ProPublica’s article last month detailing how Liberty has discouraged and dismissed students who filed reports of sexual assault. Women who went to school officials to report being raped recalled being threatened with punishment for breaking Liberty’s strict code of conduct. Others said that even Liberty University police officers discouraged them from pursuing sexual assault charges.
Like all universities that receive federal funds, the Virginia-based Liberty has to properly handle claims of sexual assault and violations of Title IX, the law banning colleges from discriminating on the basis of gender. Liberty students receive almost $800 million a year in federal aid.
Liberty University did not respond to our previous requests for comment about its conduct, but it did respond to our questions about the senators’ call for an investigation. “The university extends an invitation to Virginia Senators’ Kaine and Warner to visit the campus when it’s convenient to discuss their concerns with our executive leadership,” the school said in a statement. “We hope the Senators’ comments do not represent an unhelpful politicization of such a serious issue.”
“Any campus policy that deters or discourages a survivor of sexual assault from speaking out and seeking justice is wrong,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in a statement to ProPublica. “Students who bravely speak out deserve to be heard and to have their claims taken seriously. My office is urging the Department of Education to investigate these claims against Liberty and take appropriate action.”
Kaine introduced legislation two years ago that would require colleges to have an independent advocate available to support survivors of sexual assault.
Virginia’s other senator, Mark Warner, also a Democrat, likewise called on the school to “act immediately to remedy the issues alleged” and asked the Department of Education to “look into Liberty’s procedures.”
A spokesperson for Casey said, “Our staff has been in touch with the Education Department,” after ProPublica’s investigation. “The revelations out of Liberty University are disturbing and must be investigated.”
Liberty’s announcement of an independent investigation follows a rally on the school’s Lynchburg campus last week that called for a comprehensive audit of the school’s culture and its structures around reporting sexual assault.
Advocate Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast whose testimony helped lead to the conviction of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, spoke at the rally alongside 200 Liberty students and alumni. The rally coincided with an event for Liberty’s board of trustees.
Students and alumni say they are not satisfied with the school’s promise of a review of the office tasked with handling discrimination and abuse, arguing that the review is limited in scope and doesn’t assure transparency throughout the process.
“We requested a culture, structure and policy audit, not just a review of the office,” Dan Harris, an activist and current Liberty student, told ProPublica.
Liberty’s press release following the board meeting noted that school President Jerry Prevo also discussed efforts to increase campus security, including the installation of up to 1,000 security cameras and blue-light emergency boxes across campus.
Meanwhile, Liberty University filed a temporary restraining order against its former chief of communications, Scott Lamb, alleging he violated school confidentiality agreements by releasing internal emails to the media.
The school is suing Lamb for the misuse of “trade secrets.”
Lamb told ProPublica he was fired for raising concerns about the school’s handling of sexual assaults. Lamb, who filed a lawsuit against the school last month, said Liberty has engaged in a “conspiracy of silence.”