Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Liberty University students say college didn’t take rape allegations seriously, dissuaded police reports

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Women who attended Liberty University are accusing the administration of not taking rape accusations seriously in recent years.

“I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach,” Elizabeth Axley told ProPublica of how photos documenting alleged sexual assault were not included in a Liberty University file investigating the 2017 incident. “I had been relying on them all these months to take my evidence into account when considering my case, and it wasn’t even in my file.”

Liberty was hit with a multi-plaintiff lawsuit in July, when 12 women accused the school of making it “difficult or impossible” to report instances of sexual violence, ProPublica reported in an article on the university’s handling of sexual assault allegations.

JERRY FALWELL JR., WIFE ALLEGEDLY RANKED STUDENTS WITH WHO THEY MOST WANTED TO HAVE SEX: REPORT

About 50 former students and staffers told ProPublica that the school dissuaded students from reporting sexual assault accusations. They alleged that school officials did not sufficiently provide them with options about contacting police to file reports with law enforcement.

Axley recounted to ProPublica that she was a freshman at the school in 2017 when she was allegedly raped while attending a Halloween party off campus. She recounted that she had eight shots of vodka and some mixed drinks that night, and woke up to a male student on top of her with his hands allegedly covering her mouth. 

She said she called the campus police department after returning to her dorm, and an officer drove her to the hospital. A nurse then documented 15 bruises, and other injuries on her arm, face and torso, she said. Axley also had photos of the injuries. 

A sign marks the entrance to Liberty University, Tuesday March 24 , 2020, in Lynchburg, Va. Officials in Lynchburg said Tuesday they were fielding complaints and concerns about the hundreds of students that have returned from their spring break to Liberty University, where President Jerry Falwell Jr. has welcomed them back amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The Liberty Police Department did not immediately return Fox News’s request for comment if there are records of the incident. 

She told her resident advisor about the alleged rape after her hospital visit, she explained. The unidentified RA reportedly offered to pray with her and advised her not to report the incident to the school because drinking and fraternizing with the opposite sex is against school policy. 

JERRY FALWELL JR. SUES LIBERTY UNIVERSITY FOR DEFAMATION AFTER SEX SCANDAL FORCED HIS EXIT

“I was really confused,” recalled Axley. “They were making it seem like I had done something wrong.”

Axley took the incident to the school’s Title IX office, and filed a report, including photos of her injuries and texts from concerned friends the night of the alleged incident. After an investigation, a committee ruled that by a “preponderance of the evidence,” Axley’s alleged assailant was found “not responsible” for rape, ProPublica reported. 

Amid the allegation, the male student accused of the assault filed his own lawsuit, alleging that Axley had defamed him. The two parties ultimately agreed to not disparage each other over “doubtful and disputed claims.”

“I didn’t rape her,” the former student told ProPublica of the incident. He added, however, that he believed the school did not properly investigate the matter. 

Other women who attended the school and say they faced sexual assault accused leadership of dissuading them from filing reports with police. 

“I was never informed that filing a police report was even an option,” Adrianna Rice told the outlet. 

Rice said she was raped during her time at the school in 2016. She reported the incident to the school’s Title IX office, and one of the office’s employees, Elysa Bucci, emailed her a list of resources following the incident, such as counseling. The list did not include reporting the matter to law enforcement, ProPublica reported. 

There is a federal law requiring students are told that it is an option to report such accusations to law enforcement. Instead, Bucci allegedly told Rice to not report the incident to police as it could disrupt the Title IX investigation. 

“I felt like a gag order had been placed on me after I had already experienced a trauma,” said Rice.

Other women said they faced reprimand for reporting the incidents if the school found they broke policies against drinking, premarital sex, or “being in any state of undress with a member of the opposite sex.”

A former Liberty police officer, who later became an assistant dean at the school, claimed that school officials often dissuaded students from going to the cops with assault cases. 

“I got word that there had been an assault, but that the dean of women had convinced the girl not to press charges,” he recalled of one case more than 20 years ago. 

“That was par for the course at Liberty,” Tinsley said.

Erin McAvoy, who previously worked with a local nonprofit assisting people after sexual assault, added that students’ lacked “basic options for reporting to law enforcement or even seeking medical help.”

Liberty University did not respond to Fox News’s request for comment on its handling of sexual assault allegations. 

One former Liberty official, Scott Lamb of the communications department, had sent an email to school leadership detailing the rise in concern over its handling of sexual assault allegations. 

JERRY FALWELL JR. SUES LIBERTY UNIVERSITY FOR DEFAMATION AFTER SEX SCANDAL FORCED HIS EXIT

“There seems to be the notion that there are many (not few) skeletons in LU’s closet when it comes to ‘mishandling sexual assault allegations,’” Lamb wrote to top Liberty leadership in a May 7 email, ProPublica reported. “Culturally, this seems to be a pattern: 1 person makes an accusation about Bill Cosby/Harvey Weinstein/Matt Lauer etc…. And overnight there are a dozen people who say the same thing. True, LU is not Bill Cosby…But I’m talking about the Court of Public Opinion. And I fear that we are about to enter into a season of being found guilty in that court.”

The email received no response, the outlet reported.

Lamb continued encouraging leadership to acknowledge the issue in the following months. An email went out to school officials in September explaining that there was an “uptick” in “people commenting about the sexual assault cases at Liberty” and the school “disabled comments on the main university, resident and online Instagram accounts.”

Liberty’s Jerry Prevo, who replaced Jerry Falwell Jr. as president last year amid his own sex scandal, planned to address the concerns in a speech. But the speech was canceled after Lamb voiced concerns that the language “will make things far worse.”

FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2016 file photo, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., poses during an interview in his offices at the school in Lynchburg, Va. Falwell filed a lawsuit Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, against Liberty University with defamation and breach of contract claims alleging the school damaged his reputation in statements after his resignation. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

FILE – In this Nov. 16, 2016 file photo, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., poses during an interview in his offices at the school in Lynchburg, Va. Falwell filed a lawsuit Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, against Liberty University with defamation and breach of contract claims alleging the school damaged his reputation in statements after his resignation. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

“I have asked a law firm to look into the facts on all these cases,” said a draft of Prevo’s speech. “Nothing is going to be swept under the rug.”

“If our policies and procedures should be changed, I’ll change ’em,” Prevo’s proposed speech continued, ProPublica reported. “Not just because Title IX, but because we need [to honor] God in all we do at Liberty and we need to do so standing on Biblical truth. That’s The Liberty Way.”

Among Lamb’s concerns was that the law firm was hired to defend the school, not investigate the allegations. Lamb was fired earlier this year, and plans to file a federal lawsuit alleging he was fired for raising the concerns. 

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Prevo ultimately held a prayer meeting this month, and said he instructed school officials to take such accusations “seriously.”

“We want you to feel safe. We don’t want any sexual harassment or sexual abuse. I don’t, and I’ve told the department that deals with that. I said, ‘you take every complaint seriously, and you deal with it seriously,” he said.

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