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Liberty to pay $14M over federal Clery Act violations

Liberty University Clery Act
Steve Helber
The Associated Press file
A sign marks the entrance to Liberty University in 2020. The school has agreed to pay a $14-million fine after it failed to disclose information about crimes that occurred on its Lynchburg campus, including those involving sexual assaults.

It's the largest fine for such an offense.

Liberty University has agreed to pay a $14-million fine after the Christian school failed to disclose information about crimes that occurred on its Lynchburg campus, including those involving sexual assaults, the U.S. Department of Education announced this week.

The fine is the largest ever levied under the Clery Act, a law that requires colleges and universities that receive federal funding to collect data on campus crime and notify students of threats. Schools must disseminate an annual security report that includes crime reports and information on efforts to improve campus safety.

Liberty has marketed itself for years as having one of the nation’s safest campuses. The Washington Post and USA Today reported in October that preliminary findings by federal investigators described a university that discouraged people from reporting crimes and could not provide basic documentation about crime on campus.

Before Tuesday, the largest Clery Act fine in history was $4.5 million against Michigan State University in 2019, according to a February report from the Congressional Research Service. Federal investigators said Michigan State failed to adequately respond to sexual assault complaints against Larry Nassar, a campus sports doctor who molested elite gymnasts and other female athletes.

In 2016, Pennsylvania State University was hit with a then-record fine of $2.4 million in the wake of child sexual-abuse complaints against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Before that, the previous record Clery Act fine was $357,500 against Eastern Michigan University in 2007, which was reduced to $350,000 in a settlement.

Liberty confirmed in October that it had received a preliminary report from the government’s investigation. And the school said it was corresponding with officials about “significant errors, misstatements, and unsupported conclusions in the Department’s preliminary findings.”

Liberty said the preliminary assessed fine from the U.S. government was $37.5 million, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The $14 million fine against Liberty University appears to be a small fraction of its total operating revenues, which were $1.2 billion without donor restrictions in fiscal year 2022, according to an annual report. The school’s net assets were $3.5 billion.

But Clery Act violations are “bigger than just the fines,” said Abigail Boyer, associate executive director at the Pennsylvania-based Clery Center, which provides training and assistance to campuses.

“Hand in hand with the fines is institutions navigating how they’re now being perceived publicly as a campus that may or may not be focusing on the safety and well being of students,” Boyer said.

Liberty has become one of the world’s largest Christian schools since its 1971 co-founding by religious broadcaster Jerry Falwell Sr. In 2022, the school said it hit a record of 115,000 students pursuing degrees online, while more than 15,000 were enrolled at its Lynchburg campus.

The university was already facing scrutiny in the form of lawsuits over its handling of sex assault cases, while the Clery Act investigation became public knowledge in 2022 in the wake of recent litigation.

Lawsuits by former students and employees have accused the school of botching sexual assault reports or failing to investigate allegations of rape. The litigation was filed under under Title IX, the federal law that protects against sex discrimination in education and often overlaps with Clery.

Liberty settled a civil lawsuit filed by 12 women in 2022 after they accused the school of fostering an unsafe environment and mishandling cases of sexual assault and harassment.

The women alleged that Liberty’s strict honor code made it “difficult or impossible” for students to report sexual violence. The lawsuit said the university had a “tacit policy” of weighting investigations in favor of accused male students, and it said the university retaliated against women who did make such reports.

The terms of that lawsuit’s settlement were not disclosed. But at the time, Liberty outlined a number of changes it undertook to improve campus security and review how it responds to incidents of sexual harassment or violence.

The school said it spent more than $8.5 million on campus security upgrades, while ensuring more licensed mental health providers where available to provide counseling.

The university said it was also revising its amnesty policy to “better communicate” that it will not discipline parties who engage in behaviors, in connection with a case of sexual harassment or assault “that would have otherwise violated its student honor code.”

Tuesday’s announcement comes three years after Liberty’s acrimonious split with former president Jerry Falwell Jr., whose exit followed his posting of a provocative photo of himself online, as well as revelations of his wife’s extramarital relationship. Falwell and the university have since filed lawsuits against each other over his departure.

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