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Editor column: An important conversation about rape culture on Utah campuses

June 19, 2016 GMT

One woman, a Utah State University student, would scan the faces in the library, wary of encountering the man who sexually assaulted her.

Another woman, at the University of Utah, couldn’t even go into the library for fear of running into her assailant. Her 3.9 GPA nosedived.

Victimized first by men they trusted, then by a complicated, inconsistent system that takes too long to investigate rape on college campuses, both lives tumbled into paralyzed disruption.

The issue of rape at America’s colleges and universities is in the national spotlight, what with Jon Krakauer’s investigation into an athlete-fueled assault culture at the University of Montana, and the light sentence given a Stanford University swim team star who brutally assaulted an incapacitated woman.

The Salt Lake Tribune has done its share of investigative reporting on the subject, looking into how sexual-assault allegations are handled at Brigham Young University and other Utah campuses. At BYU, our reporters have examined the relationship between the Title IX office, responsible for investigating sexual assaults, and the university’s Honor Code Office, charged with ensuring students at the LDS Church-owned school follow a code of conduct, and meting out discipline when they don’t. We uncovered a culture where perpetrators sometimes use the threat of school discipline to intimidate and silence their victims.

We’ve also looked at the relationship between Utah County law enforcement and the sharing of investigation documents with the Honor Code Office, which is against the law and, in one instance, has endangered a sexual-assault case, according to prosecutors.

To its credit, BYU has begun to re-evaluate how it handles Honor Code investigations and discipline in cases involving sexual assaults.

On June 30, we will present a live, free-to-the-public town hall on the issue of sexual assault on Utah college campuses. Specifically, the event will try to get to the heart of this question: Why does a culture of rape, where individual attitudes and institutional policies put students at risk and fail victims, continue at these places where young minds prepare for life?

In many cases, there are no, or few, consequences for the perpetrators of these invasive, violent crimes. Victims leave school, often before graduating, betrayed on many levels.

The most important part of the discussion: What needs to change?

Our panel will include BYU nursing professor Julie Valentine, whose research into sexual-assault investigations and prosecutions shines a light on the huge backlog of rape kit analysis among Utah law enforcement, and how that is denying justice to thousands of victims. We’ll also be joined by Jodi Petersen, sexual-assault support advocate with the University of Utah’s Center for Student Wellness, who formerly worked with law enforcement agencies in the Salt Lake City area. Attorney Steve Evans, who blogs on Mormon issues, will help the panel explore the unique cultural aspects of the problem in Utah. Tribune reporter Erin Alberty, who took the lead on our coverage, rounds out the group, with Roger McDonough, KCPW news host, moderating.

The June 30 event takes place at 7 p.m. at The Leonardo, 209 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City. Please join us for what promises to be a meaningful, productive conversation on a topic of utmost importance.

Jay Shelledy led The Tribune newsroom for more than a decade, through the 1990s and the 2002 Winter Olympics. When he left, he continued doing what he always did — teaching and mentoring — but in a different venue: the classroom, as a professional in residence at Louisiana State University.

Shelledy’s students have pursued ambitious journalism. They’ve gone on the road and into the rural South to tell stories of unsolved civil rights-era murders. This year, they formed a bureau of student reporters to cover the Louisiana Legislature for 13 newspapers. His team filed nearly 400 stories. That’s known as on-the-job training, serving the public in the process.

This week, Shelledy was named recipient of one of the most prestigious honors in the field of journalism education — 2016 Educator of the Year by the Newspaper and Online News Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Many of us who worked with Jay think of him as professorial, complete with the bow tie. His influence endures with many in our newsroom, including me.

Now if I could only learn to tie that damn bow.

Terry Orme is The Tribune’s editor. Reach him at orme@sltrib.com.