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Liberty University has been fined $14 million for mishandling sexual assault and other crimes

Liberty University, the evangelical Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia, agreed to pay a record $14 million fine for violating federal campus safety laws, the Education Department announced Tuesday, accusing the school of creating a “culture of silence” that discouraged reporting of crimes and repeatedly mishandling sexual assaults.

In a 108 page reportthe department found specific problems with the university’s handling of sexual misconduct, including the fact that it had punished several victims of sexual assault for violating the student honor codewhich prohibits premarital sex but does not punish the perpetrators. As a result, sex crimes often went unreported, the department said.

The report also said Liberty discouraged staff members from sending emergency notifications because they failed to notify students of dangerous events such as bomb threats on campus and gas leaks. And it accused the university of publicly portraying itself as one of the safest colleges in the country, while keeping little data on campus crime and providing statistics that could not be supported by official data.

The action is the latest blow to the position of Liberty, which was founded by conservative pastor and political activist Jerry Falwell Sr. and has grown into one of the nation’s leading evangelical institutions, with a sprawling campus and an endowment of more than $2 billion. Mr. Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr., resigned as president in 2020 amid a sex scandal and was sued by the university the following year for $40 million in damages for various contract breaches.

Tuesday’s fine, which exceeded all previous fines imposed by the department for such violations, is part of a settlement agreement with the university after an investigation by the department revealed “material and ongoing violations” of the Clery Act. The law requires schools that participate in federal financial aid programs to report data on campus crime and provide support to victims of sexual abuse.

In addition to the fine, the university agreed to spend $2 million over two years to maintain a compliance committee and improve campus safety. The department said it would monitor the university through April 2026.

“The $14 million fine and other remedies imposed in this settlement reflect the serious and long-standing nature of Liberty’s violations, which undermined campus safety for students, faculty and staff,” the department said in a statement declaration.

In a statement posted onlinethe university acknowledged many of the violations cited by the Department of Education during the seven years it investigated. The university did indicate that the school had been held to account much more strictly and had been monitored much more strictly than other institutions.

“While the University maintains that we have repeatedly experienced selective and unfair treatment by the department, the University also agrees that there were numerous past shortcomings,” the statement said. “We acknowledge and regret these past failures and have taken these necessary improvements seriously.”

The department’s investigation, which began in 2022, followed a lawsuit in which A total of 22 women have joined a lawsuit against Liberty UniversitySome women said they had been raped or experienced sexual violence because of negligent policies and a culture that discouraged reporting sexual misconduct.

The Department of Education is finalizing new rules on sexual misconduct that redefine the provisions of Title IX, a 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded schools.

These changes are expected to lead to greater protections for victims of sexual assault on college campuses. This undoes rules put in place under the Trump administration that gave more respect to students accused of sexual misconduct defending themselves.

In imposing the fine on Tuesday, the department went far beyond previous Clery Act penalties that followed high-profile cases of widespread sexual abuse by university employees against students.

The fine eclipsed the then-record $4.5 million fine imposed on Michigan State University in 2019 for sexual abuse committed by Lawrence G. Nassar. Mr. Nassar was convicted of abusing hundreds of girls and women while serving for years as a sports physician for student athletes at a Michigan State University clinic.

The amount also far exceeded the $2.4 million Penn State was awarded after Jerry Sandusky, an assistant football coach, was convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys.

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