Liberty U settles with women who allege their sexual assault allegations were mishandled

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 reached a settlement with over a dozen women who accused the Virginia-based evangelical Christian higher education institution of improperly handling credible allegations of sexual assault.

"Liberty University can confirm that the institution reached settlement agreements with all the Jane Doe plaintiffs, as well as all but two of the additional Jane Does that attorney [Jack] Larkin represented," a statement emailed by the university to The Christian Post reads. 

"As a result, Mr. Larkin dismissed with prejudice the lawsuit that he had previously filed on the Jane Does’ behalf."

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Jack Larkin of Gawthrop Greenwood, PC, an attorney who represented the women, told local TV station WDBJ earlier this week that his clients settled with the school but couldn't release the details.

“The terms of the settlement are confidential in nature and there’s really nothing I can say about it beyond that the parties to the suit have resolved their differences, and the matter is settled,” Larkin said.

Last year, 12 unnamed women filed a lawsuit against Liberty, accusing the prominent Lynchburg-based university of failing to properly investigate their assault claims and violating federal law.

A similar accusation was made in a separate lawsuit filed by another former student last month, prompting federal officials to investigate the school's policies and protocols. 

Liberty University's emailed statement stated it had taken initiatives in an attempt to alleviate concerns before the case was settled. These include introducing over $8.5 million in security upgrades, such as the installation of security cameras, blue lightboxes, better campus lighting and launching a phone app for reporting emergencies.

"The university also launched reviews of, and elected to further enhance, many of its existing policies," the university's statement reads. "Its ongoing review of the campus Title IX department will result in further strengthening of its policies and procedures, including additional mandatory training for students and employees."

Liberty contends that there will be changes to Liberty’s "amnesty policy" amid concerns that its honor code could be enforced against students who report sexual assault. 

"The existing policy is now being revised to better communicate — with respect to reports of sexual harassment and/or assault — that Liberty does not discipline parties who engage in behaviors, in connection with that sexual harassment and/or assault, that would have otherwise violated its student honor code." 

The class-action lawsuit was filed last July in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

The plaintiffs accused school officials of violating Title IX federal anti-discrimination law, specifically by failing to process sexual assault and harassment allegations properly.

“Liberty University has intentionally created a campus environment where sexual assaults and rapes are foreseeably more likely to occur than they would in the absence of Liberty’s policies,” the lawsuit claimed.

The plaintiffs argued that Liberty created “an unsafe campus environment” by misusing its honor code, known as “The Liberty Way,” which prohibits extramarital sex, consuming alcohol or being at events where alcohol is served.

According to the lawsuit, the honor code fails to clarify if women who report sexual assault will be punished for violating the honor code if she admits to breaking other aspects of the code.

“Some students who were the victims of sexual violence, including Plaintiffs below, reported their assaults to the University through [resident advisors], and were urged to withdraw those reports because they involved admitted violations of the Liberty Way,” continued the complaint.

“Those students, including certain of the Plaintiffs, were told that their reports would subject them to discipline that could include expulsion. They, apparently, did not qualify for the amnesty, though no explanation for why was given.”

Liberty released a statement at the time saying that “the claims are the complete opposite of how the University’s policies and procedures were designed to operate over the years.”

“Liberty has invested mightily in programs and personnel to help maintain a safe campus and to support any and all victims of sexual assault who came forward,” stated Liberty, adding that it would "immediately look into each of these claims to determine what needs to be done to make things right, if they turn out to be true.”

“Liberty has a robust non-discrimination policy, which includes an amnesty policy to encourage victims to make reports without fearing that their involvement in other activities like drinking alcohol or extramarital sex will be disciplined under the student honor code,” the university continued.

“That policy includes a fair process for resolving disputes about rape, sexual harassment, sex discrimination and retaliation, as well as providing supportive measures as appropriate. It would be heartbreaking if those efforts had the results claimed in this lawsuit.”

In late April, another unnamed woman filed a lawsuit against Liberty in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, arguing that the university failed to investigate her rape allegation properly.

The U.S. Department of Education recently opened an investigation into how Liberty complies with federal law regarding campus safety.

In a statement earlier this month, Liberty welcomed the investigation. 

"We have also committed to work collaboratively with the Department to address any potential compliance gaps identified through the review," a Liberty spokesperson said in a statement to WDBJ7.

"Our Clery Compliance Officer, in the Office of Equity and Compliance, works closely with the Liberty University Police Department and campus partners to prioritize campus safety and fulfill the requirements of the Clery Act." 

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