A recent report details countless instances of institutional retaliation and victim blaming by Liberty University against students impacted by sexual violence. This amalgamation of accounts exposes a clear pattern and a “chilling effect” that discourages students from reporting, let alone validating, their experiences with violence. It also provides insights that extend far beyond Liberty University.

ProPublica conducted interviews with more than 50 students and faculty members at Liberty University, an evangelical university located in Virginia. Per the interviews, students who experienced sexual violence were forced to pay fines for consuming alcohol, something they had disclosed when reporting. Other students signed forms upon reporting recognizing that they might be penalized for violating school conduct. Many students never reported their violence in the first place; one saying, “I knew I would face the blame for putting myself in that situation.”

In the face of all too familiar accounts, ProPublica brings in a new angle: scripture. They begin their report by labeling Liberty University as “the evangelical school,”  observing that the university cites Proverbs 31:8 in their information sheet about harassment and discrimination. They mention the school’s moral code of conduct, called the “Liberty Way,” that includes infractions against underage drinking and premarital sex. Written between the lines of this report is the subtext that Liberty University’s position as an evangelical university in the South perhaps explains its cascade of mistreatment.

Undoubtedly, biblical morals about truth and justice are painfully ironic in the face of the institution’s adverse actions. Strict ideologies around sex, ones that Liberty University uphold in their moral code of conduct, also contribute to violence and victim blaming. Nonetheless, institutional inaction and retaliation do not revolve around religious and moral values; they transcend and permeate the vast majority of our communities. 

Reading ProPublica’s report eerily reminded me of my experience writing and passing a related law in Connecticut, Public Act 21-81. The law, which passed in June 2021, now prevents colleges and universities in Connecticut from penalizing students for alcohol and drug violations that occurred during sexual violence. Throughout a two-year effort to pass this bill, I advocated in favor of this “amnesty policy.” After all, drugs and alcohol are often used as a tool to victimize (at least 50% of sexual assaults involve alcohol), and no individual is at fault for the violence they experience. However, even in a “Democratic” state like Connecticut, the commonsense policy was controversial — or more accurately, it was controversial-ized by institutional actors with interests that wobbled between protecting students and protecting themselves.

Legislators and lobbyists alike commonly voiced concerns around amnesty. Some, like Connecticut Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, testified that sexual violence can be addressed through less drug and alcohol use. I heard others voice concern that amnesty against drugs and alcohol gave individuals an excuse to evade responsibility and may lead to false reporting — as if an individual would invoke violence as a means to escape penalty. Many also could not separate drug/alcohol amnesty from other agendas to curb addictive substance behaviors. While these concerns are all flawed on the surface, they share ulterior motives that dangerously lay at-wait under the surface.

Code misconducts have little, if anything, to do with violence. Yet, they are evoked as a means to undermine the true structural roots of sexual violence, many of which universities are complicit in upholding. Sexual violence does not occur because an individual chooses to use alcohol or drugs, to engage in sexual activity or to violate a conduct policy in any other way. It occurs because someone chooses to perpetrate violence, a prevalent behavior that is only reinforced by institutional inaction and a lack of accountability.

There is no doubt in my mind that universities have some vested interest in diluting the severity of sexual violence, which is intertwined with crafting a utopian image of safety and quality of life on their campus. This often translates into a “sexual violence does not occur here” narrative. As a result, universities may deploy fines or threats as a way to discourage and actively prevent students from reporting. These retaliation policies lower the visibility of sexual violence on campus, suppress conversations and often absolve institutions of their responsibility to intervene. This happens at Liberty University. And it is happening at myriad secular universities as well.

To bring it closer to home, Massachusetts’ legislature did not codify an anti-retaliation policy until January 2021 — less than a year ago — when “an act relative to sexual violence on higher educational campuses” passed. Before then, universities in Massachusetts, such as Brandeis, could penalize students whose experiences with violence involved drug and alcohol violations. While Brandeis’s Office of Equal Opportunity had an amnesty policy before the passage of this state law, the language of the policy was not absolute. As a result, students were not fully certain on whether or not they would be protected by the amnesty policy. Even now, this state-codified anti-violence amnesty only involves alcohol and drug violations, leaving the door open for campuses to penalize students who report violence on other misconduct grounds. 

I urge you to play your part. Help impart awareness about the new amnesty policy to your peers and reaffirm their new civil right; under state law, those who experience sexual violence cannot be penalized for any alcohol or drug use that occurred alongside their violence. Beyond reporting, affirm their right to access the resources they feel are right for them. Challenge behaviors that undermine the severity of sexual violence and perpetuate victim-blaming. This cycle of violence and inaction extends far beyond Liberty University. We all have a role in disrupting it.