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Editorial: Liberty University, Virginia Tech must course correct to confront sexual abuse, harassment

Protesters at Virginia Tech Board of Visitors meeting on Nov. 7

Protesters attended the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors meeting Nov. 7 over the university’s current plan to address sexual assaults.

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

That’s the crux of Title IX, part of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal statute at the center of ongoing controversies at Virginia Tech and Liberty University, schools strongly bonded with the Roanoke valley.

In September, about 200 students gathered on the steps of Burruss Hall in Blacksburg to once again make demands that Virginia Tech more proactively address sexual assault on campus and provide more protections for victims who come forward to report.

“We are tired of the university assembling committees, conducting surveys, and compiling reports without adequately responding to the alarming statistics and patterns found,” reads the letter presented to Virginia Tech officials by the members of the United Feminist Movement. “We are tired of the way our heart drops when we check our email, only to find another Clery Act email describing an act of violence in the place we consider home.”

The UFM held its first rally on this same topic in 2018 and organized a student walkout in 2019 in which more than 1,000 participated.

The September letter expressed appreciation for recent efforts made by Tech President Timothy Sands and other administrators to communicate better and work toward a safer campus, but still slammed the university for not going far enough to meaningfully address the problem.

Anger over Tech’s response, or lack thereof, has inspired Letters to the Editor from students. Emma Kreis, who attended the Sept. 28 protest, wrote, “Being in the crowd and hearing the heartbreaking stories told by the survivors makes you understand how important this is not only to the current students, but for incoming or potential students. Who wants to go to a school that lets sexual assaulters and rapists walk free and still attend the school?”

On Nov. 4, Virginia Tech announced the formation of the Sexual Violence Culture and Climate Work Group, chaired by Katie Polidoro, the university’s Title IX coordinator.

“It has been deeply upsetting to finally come together again as a campus community and have multiple reports of sexual violence,” Sands said. “I share the frustration and concern for survivors that has been expressed by our students as this unacceptable conduct continues.”

At a protest held during a Nov. 7 meeting of Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors, Larissa Schneider with the UFM said her group keeps pushing for a more effective response to campus sexual assaults and “what we’ve got so far is another committee.”

What’s unfolding in Lynchburg is even more disquieting.

In July, 12 women who are former Liberty University students and employees filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York that accused the Christian university of mishandling sexual harassment and assault complaints over a period spanning 20 years.

The repeated allegations of sexual harassment, sexual abuse and rape detailed in the lawsuit constitute nightmare fuel. The women allege that the university’s socially conservative code of conduct, known as “The Liberty Way,” has in practice been “weaponized” to punish women who report sexual abuse and assault.

The allegations made by a Goochland woman cited in the lawsuit as Jane Doe 12 have a disturbing Roanoke connection. Jane Doe 12 states in the suit that in 2000, when she was 15, she attended a Liberty University summer camp, where a man attacked and groped her.

When she reported the assault, she alleges, Liberty University Campus Police made her ride in the same car as the man she accused, dismissed her testimony, and subjected her to a humiliating 8-hour interrogation that included stripping nude to be photographed.

The man who she alleges attacked her, Jesse Matthew Jr., was starting his first year at Liberty on a football scholarship. In 2002, he left the university after another student accused him of rape. No charges resulted from that investigation.

Matthew is now serving seven life sentences for the sexual assault and attempted murder of a Fairfax woman in 2005, the 2009 abduction and murder of Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, who grew up in Roanoke, and the 2014 abduction and murder of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham.

In October, investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica published an in-depth story containing further allegations that the university uses “The Liberty Way” to discourage and dismiss student reports of sexual assault. These claims are not anonymous: Many of the women interviewed by ProPublica gave permission to use their names.

A status update in the original lawsuit, also filed in October, indicated 10 more woman have come forward with allegations, including students currently enrolled.

In a statement, Liberty University’s new president, Jerry Prevo, addressed the lawsuit. “I hope and pray these allegations turn out to be false. Discrimination against victims of sexual assault because of their gender and engaging in sexual harassment are contrary to our Christian faith and mission, and have absolutely no place at Liberty,” he wrote. “If true, though, I assure you we will make things right.”

In the same month, Scott Lamb, the former senior vice president for communications at Liberty, also filed a lawsuit against the school, claiming he was fired for raising concerns about mishandling of sexual assault cases.

In his statement, Prevo also addressed Lamb’s allegations, writing, “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

The same day that Sands announced the work group, students at Liberty held a rally demanding an independent investigation into the school’s handling of sexual assault complaints, with Prevo vowing to support the formation of an investigative committee.

In July, CNBC named Virginia as America’s Top State for Business for the second year in a row. The state’s schools weighed heaviest in the selection, with the network citing “a world-class higher education system.”

We’re justifiably proud of our universities, and given that pride of place, the troubling issues raised in Blacksburg and in Lynchburg regarding the reporting of Title IX violations need to be addressed head-on, and problems course-corrected.

Any direction that makes an already fraught process more traumatizing for those who most need it is the wrong direction.

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