Liberty University Will Pay $14 Million Fine For Student Safety Violations

Liberty University has been ordered to pay a historic fine of $14 million by the U.S. Department of Education. The fine is a result of the Christian school’s failure to disclose crucial information about crimes committed on its campus and its inadequate treatment of sexual assault survivors.

The fine under the Clery Act is the largest ever imposed, highlighting the severity of the violation. The Clery Act mandates that educational institutions receiving federal funding gather information on campus crime and alert students of potential threats. To comply, schools must distribute a yearly security report containing crime data and details on initiatives aimed at enhancing campus safety.

Liberty University has long positioned itself as a safe campus, boasting a student enrollment of over 15,000 in Lynchburg, Virginia. However, federal investigators uncovered that between 2016 and 2023, the university’s police department operated with minimal oversight, relying on just one officer to handle crime investigations.

The U.S. Department of Education has found numerous cases where crimes were either misclassified or underreported. Additionally, the university has identified several incidents as unfounded, meaning there was no evidence to support the initial report being false.

According to the Final Program Review Determination by the department, sexually based offenses, including rape and fondling cases, were particularly prevalent.

The final program review confirmed that the episode was included in the crime statistics. It was discovered by Liberty’s Clery compliance officer that the case had been mishandled at multiple points in the process.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the university emphasized its unwavering commitment to ensuring the safety and security of both students and staff, without any exceptions.

The school has expressed its commitment to maintaining cooperation with the U.S. Department of Education. Additionally, it highlighted its substantial progress in meeting the requirements of the Clery Act and other laws, with more than $10 million invested since 2022. These investments have been directed towards enhancing educational programming, bringing in new leadership, and bolstering staffing.

Liberty has acknowledged its past errors, including providing incorrect statistical reports and failing to send necessary timely warnings and emergency notifications. However, the university argues that the U.S. Department of Education employed methods and calculations that greatly deviated from its previous treatment of other universities.

According to the school, Liberty strongly disagrees with this approach and firmly asserts that they have been subject to selective and unjust treatment by the department on numerous occasions.

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

According to a February report from the Congressional Research Service, Michigan State received the largest Clery Act fine in history, totaling $4.5 million in 2019. Federal investigators found that the university failed to effectively address sexual assault complaints concerning Larry Nassar, a campus sports doctor who sexually abused elite gymnasts and other female athletes.

According to an annual report, Liberty University received a $14 million fine, which seems negligible when compared to its substantial operating revenues of $1.2 billion in fiscal year 2022. Additionally, the university boasts net assets of $3.5 billion.

According to Abigail Boyer, associate executive director at the Clery Center, a Pennsylvania-based organization that offers support and training to campuses, Clery Act violations have consequences that extend beyond financial penalties.

Boyer, in a conversation with The Associated Press, highlighted the close association between the fines and how institutions are being perceived by the public. It raises concerns about whether these campuses are prioritizing the safety and well-being of their students.

Founded in 1971 by religious broadcaster Jerry Falwell Sr., Liberty has emerged as one of the largest Christian schools globally. As of 2022, the institution boasts a remarkable milestone of 115,000 students enrolled in online degree programs, in addition to over 15,000 students studying on campus.

In 2022, the Clery Act investigation came to light following legal action taken against it for its handling of sexual assault cases.

Former students and employees have filed lawsuits against the school, alleging mishandling of sexual assault reports and failure to investigate rape allegations. These legal actions fall under Title IX, a federal law that safeguards against sex discrimination in education and often intersects with Clery.

According to the lawsuit, the university allegedly had a “tacit policy” of biasing investigations in favor of male students who were accused. Moreover, it was claimed that the university engaged in retaliatory actions against women who reported such incidents.

The details of the settlement for that lawsuit were not made public. However, during that time, Liberty made several commitments to enhance campus security and thoroughly evaluate its approach to addressing cases of sexual harassment or violence.

Tuesday’s announcement marks a significant development following the contentious separation between Liberty and its former president, Jerry Falwell Jr. This split was triggered by Falwell’s controversial online photo and the revelation of his wife’s extramarital affair. In the aftermath, both Falwell and the university filed lawsuits against each other in relation to his departure.

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