Liberty University suspends professor charged with sexual assault, abduction by force

L.U. monogram overlooking the Liberty University campus, Lynchburg, Virginia.
L.U. monogram overlooking the Liberty University campus, Lynchburg, Virginia. | Liberty University

Liberty University has suspended one of its professors after the Evangelical Christian school’s police force arrested him for allegedly attempting to assault and kidnap a student. 

William Atwell, a 58-year-old associate professor of American Sign Language at Liberty, was charged with sexual battery and abduction by force or intimidation in a Lynchburg General District Court on Nov. 22, according to court documents. The alleged incident took place on Sept. 15, more than two months before Atwell’s arrest by campus police on Nov. 20.

Atwell was released from the Lynchburg Adult Detention Center on a $3,000 bond on Nov. 29. He is due back in court on Jan. 25. 

The Christian Post reached out to Liberty University for more information on the story. On Thursday morning, a spokesperson for the Evangelical Christian school emailed a statement to CP.

“Liberty University takes nothing more seriously than claims that a faculty member has had inappropriate sexual contact with one of our students, something for which there is zero tolerance,” stated Liberty.

“We are treating this matter with the utmost seriousness, care, and concern. With the student’s consent, the university turned the matter over to the appropriate legal authorities and the faculty member in question was arrested.”

Liberty went on to state that Atwell “has also been suspended by the university pending the outcome of this matter." The school then noted that they will “limit further comment” in order to “protect the integrity of [the] investigation and the privacy of the student.”

News of the Atwell arrest comes as Liberty faces allegations and legal battles over the belief that the school does not properly handle credible allegations by students of sexual assault.

On July 12, twelve anonymous women filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing Liberty officials of violating Title IX federal anti-discrimination law, namely failing to properly process sexual assault allegations.

The complaint argued that Liberty created “an unsafe campus environment” by misusing “The Liberty Way,” the school honor code that, among other things, prohibits extramarital sex, consuming alcohol, or attending events where alcohol is served.

The suit claimed that “The Liberty Way” fails to clarify if a woman who reports being sexually assaulted will be punished for violating the honor code if she admits to breaking other aspects of the code when reporting her assault.

In October, ProPublica published an investigative piece titled, “‘The Liberty Way’: How Liberty University Discourages and Dismisses Students’ Reports of Sexual Assaults.”

ProPublica interviewed more than a dozen former Liberty students and employees who detailed experiences in which school officials allegedly mishandled assault allegations. They claimed the school threatened accusers with punishment for any violations of “The Liberty Way” in the moments leading up to the assault.

In late October, Liberty President Jerry Prevo responded to the controversy by issuing a statement declaring that “The Liberty Way should never be misused to cover up wrongdoing.”

“It is also the case that as a Christian university we will remain unwavering in our commitment to cultivating a culture in our Liberty community that honors God’s Word and embraces God’s principles for life,” Prevo stated.

“While ‘The Liberty Way’ must never be used to discourage victims from reporting wrongdoing, we also believe that we do not have to choose between embracing our code of conduct as a Christian university and in complying with our legal Title IX obligations. We can do both at the same time, and we will do so.”

Last month, Liberty filed a restraining order against Scott Lamb, the school’s former senior vice president of communications, who alleged that he was dismissed from his position for expressing concern about the university’s handling of sexual assault allegations. While Lamb had filed a lawsuit claiming wrongful termination, Liberty maintains that he was fired for “insubordination, expense mismanagement, and overall poor performance.”

In a previous email to CP, Liberty insisted that “Lamb simply continues to make egregious, false claims and to violate the law.”

Lamb pointed to his status as a “whistleblower” as the reason for his termination: “I indicted the former president, the Board of Trustees for negligence and Jerry Prevo as the chairman of the trustees during the entire presidency of Jerry Falwell Jr. Baker Tilly presented their report to Jerry Prevo and the Board of Trustees on September 29. Seven days later, Jerry Prevo fired me.”    

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