Liberty University will pay $14 million fine for student safety violations

Liberty University has agreed to pay an unprecedented $14 million fine for the Christian school’s failure to disclose information about crimes on its campus and for its treatment of sexual assault survivors, the U.S. Department of Education announced Tuesday.

The fine is by far the largest ever levied under the Clery Act, a law that requires colleges and universities that receive federal funding to collect data on campus crime and notify students of threats. Schools must disseminate an annual security report that includes crime reports and information on efforts to improve campus safety.

Liberty has marketed itself for years as having one of the nation’s safest campuses, with more than 15,000 students enrolled at the school in Lynchburg, Virginia. But its police department had a single officer with minimal oversight for investigating crimes during most of the time period reviewed by federal investigators, 2016 to 2023.

The U.S. Department of Education said it identified numerous cases that resulted in the misclassification or underreporting of crimes. And there were several incidents that the university determined to be unfounded, without evidence the initial report was false.

“This was especially common with respect to sexually based offenses, including rape and fondling cases,” according to the department’s Final Program Review Determination.

Homecoming weekend at Liberty University
Students mingle on the campus lawn at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Federal investigators cited a case in which a woman reported being raped, with the attacker telling her he had a knife, the final program review stated.

Liberty’s investigator “unfounded this case based on a claim that the ‘victim indicates that she consented to the sexual act,'” the final program review stated. “In point of fact, the victim’s own statement merely indicated that she ‘gave in’ in an attempt to get away from the perpetrator.”

That episode was ultimately counted in the crime statistics, the final program review stated, after Liberty’s Clery compliance officer realized the case was “mishandled at several points in the process.”

Many victims of sexual crimes feared reporting because of concerns of reprisal, the final program review stated. Several were punished for violating the student code of conduct known as “The Liberty Way,” while their assailants were left unpunished.

“Consequently, victims of sexual assault often felt dissuaded by Liberty administration’s reputation for punishing sexual assault survivors rather than helping them,” the final program review said. “Such fears created a culture of silence where sexual assaults commonly went unreported.”

The university said in a statement Tuesday that it is “fully committed to maintaining the safety and security of students and staff without exception.”

The school said it would continue to cooperate with the U.S. Department of Education. And it noted that it has made more than $10 million in significant improvements since 2022 toward complying with the Clery Act and other laws, including in educational programming, new leadership and staffing.

Liberty also acknowledged past problems, including “incorrect statistical reports as well as necessary timely warnings and emergency notifications that were not sent.” But the university also said the U.S. Department of Education used methods and calculations that were “drastically different from their historic treatment of other universities.”

“Liberty disagrees with this approach and maintains that we have repeatedly endured selective and unfair treatment by the department,” the school said.

But Dustin Wahl, co-founder of Save71, an alumni-led organization that advocates for changes, said Liberty is trying to shift the blame.

“Liberty should be apologizing to the students who have been harmed over the years and demonstrating a commitment to change,” he said. “Not because they are being dragged along by the government, but because they genuinely want to be transparent and fix the problems.”

Before Tuesday, the largest Clery Act fine in history was $4.5 million against Michigan State in 2019, according to a February report from the Congressional Research Service. Federal investigators said Michigan State failed to adequately respond to sexual assault complaints against Larry Nassar, a campus sports doctor who molested elite gymnasts and other female athletes.

In 2016, Pennsylvania State University was hit with a then-record fine of $2.4 million in the wake of child sexual abuse complaints against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

The $14 million fine against Liberty University appears to be a small fraction of its total operating revenues, which were $1.2 billion without donor restrictions in fiscal year 2022, according to an annual report. The school’s net assets were $3.5 billion.

But Clery Act violations are “bigger than just the fines,” said Abigail Boyer, associate executive director at the Pennsylvania-based Clery Center, which provides training and assistance to campuses.

“Hand in hand with the fines is institutions navigating how they’re now being perceived publicly as a campus that may or may not be focusing on the safety and well being of students,” Boyer told The Associated Press.

Liberty has become one of the world’s largest Christian schools since its 1971 co-founding by religious broadcaster Jerry Falwell Sr. In 2022, the school said it hit a record of 115,000 students pursuing degrees online, beyond the more than 15,000 on campus.

Mourners Remember Rev. Jerry Falwell
Former Liberty University student Lisa Horchner walks past a makeshift memorial rock honoring Rev. Jerry Falwell on the Liberty University campus on May 21, 2007 in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

The Clery Act investigation became public knowledge in 2022 in the wake of litigation over its handling of sex assault cases.

Lawsuits by former students and employees have accused the school of botching sexual assault reports or failing to investigate allegations of rape. The litigation was filed under Title IX, the federal law that protects against sex discrimination in education and often overlaps with Clery.

Liberty settled a civil lawsuit filed by 12 women in 2022 after they accused the school of fostering an unsafe environment and mishandling cases of sexual assault and harassment.

The lawsuit said the university had a “tacit policy” of weighting investigations in favor of accused male students, and it said the university retaliated against women who did make such reports.

The terms of that lawsuit’s settlement were not disclosed. But at the time, Liberty outlined a number of changes it undertook to improve campus security and review how it responds to incidents of sexual harassment or violence.

Liberty University - Lynchburg, VA
Former Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. during a convocation at the Vines Center on the campus of Liberty University on Wednesday, December 9, 2015.

Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Tuesday’s announcement comes three years after Liberty’s acrimonious split with former president Jerry Falwell Jr., whose exit followed his posting of a provocative photo of himself online as well as revelations of his wife’s extramarital affair. Falwell and the university have since filed lawsuits against each other over his departure.

Source link