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Liberty University Hit With Record Fines for Failing to Handle Complaints of Sexual Assault, Other Crimes — ProPublica

The federal Department of Education has announced a historic $14 million fine against Liberty University for failing to properly handle reports of sexual assault and other campus safety isssues.

Universities are required by law to support victims of violence. The Education Department found that the Christian evangelical Liberty University had fundamentally failed to do so. Sexual assault victims were “punished for violating the student code of conduct,” the report concluded, “while their assailants were left unpunished.”

The government found that Liberty’s actions had created a “culture of silence.”

The findings, which the department announced Tuesday, echo a ProPublica investigation that detailed how officials had discouraged and dismissed women who tried to come forward with accounts of sexual assault. Women who went to school officials to report being raped recalled being threatened with punishment for breaking the university’s strict moral code, known as “The Liberty Way.”

The coverage prompted widespread outrage, including demands from senators for a Department of Education investigation.

That investigation culminated in Tuesday’s announcement. The fines against Liberty are more than double the amount of the next-largest fines in Department of Education history — against Michigan State University for its failures to protect hundreds of women and girls from sexual abuser Larry Nassar.

Liberty will also face two years of federal oversight.

Elizabeth Axley, a former Liberty University student who was threatened with punishment when she reported her rape to campus officials, said the government’s findings against Liberty feel “so validating and sort of surreal.”

“For an official report to say, ‘Yes, everything you said happened, everything you described was real,’ is more powerful than I can describe,” said Axley, who recalled that when she first wanted to report her rape, a resident adviser told her to pray instead. “After I first fought to stand up for myself at Liberty, I was silenced. I didn’t feel hopeful. It took everything for me to stand up to tell my story again and hope it turned out right. This reminds me it was completely worth it.”

In response to the government’s report, Liberty University said in a statement that it faced “unfair treatment.” But the school also admitted to mistakes and committed to spending $2 million to improve campus safety.

“We acknowledge and sincerely regret these errors and have since corrected them in a manner that allows us to maintain compliance in each of these areas,” the school said. “Today is a new day at Liberty University. We remain committed to prioritizing the safety and security of our students and staff without exception.”

Liberty University was co-founded in 1971 by the televangelist Jerry Falwell. His son, Jerry Falwell Jr., took over the university’s helm in 2007 but resigned in 2020 after a series of scandals. With more than 90,000 students enrolled on its Virginia campus and online, Liberty remains one of the most influential Christian universities in the county.

S. Daniel Carter, who helped craft the Clery Act, the federal law that requires schools to report sexual assault and other crimes, said the significance of the Department of Education’s actions go beyond the record fines. “It’s not about a bottom line number,” Carter said. “It’s about the fact that they are proactively investigating and leading efforts to bring schools into compliance.”

Hannah Dreyfus contributed reporting.

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