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Liberty University Fined $14 Million for Mishandling Sex Assaults and Other Crimes

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

In a 108-page report, the department found particular problems with how the university handled sexual misconduct, including that it had punished several sexual assault victims for violating the student honor code, which prohibits premarital sex, while failing to punish their assailants. As a result, sexual assaults commonly went unreported, the department said.

The report also said Liberty discouraged staff members from sending out emergency notifications, failing to notify students of dangerous events such as campus bomb threats and gas leaks. And it accused the university of aggrandizing itself publicly as one of the safest colleges in the country while maintaining little data on campus crime and providing statistics it could not back up with official records.

The action is the latest blow to the standing of Liberty, which was founded by the conservative pastor and political activist Jerry Falwell Sr. and has grown into one of the country’s most prominent 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 for $40 million in damages the next year for various breaches of contract.

The penalty on Tuesday, which dwarfed every previous fine the department had levied for such violations, is part of a settlement agreement with the university after a review by the department revealed “material and ongoing violations” of the Clery Act. The law requires that schools participating in federal financial aid programs report data on campus crime and support victims of sexual assault.

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

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

In a statement posted online, the university acknowledged many of the violations cited by the Education Department over the seven-year period it reviewed, but said the school had been singled out and scrutinized far more aggressively than other institutions.

“While the university maintains that we have repeatedly endured selective and unfair treatment by the department, the university also concurs there were numerous deficiencies that existed in the past,” the statement said. “We acknowledge and regret these past failures and have taken these necessary improvements seriously.”

The department’s review, which began in 2022, came on the heels of a lawsuit in which a total of 22 women joined a lawsuit against Liberty University. Some of the women said they were raped or experienced sexual violence because of negligent policies and a culture that discouraged reporting sexual misconduct.

The Education Department is in the final stages of unveiling new rules on sexual misconduct, redefining provisions of Title IX, a 1972 law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded schools.

Those changes are expected to extend stronger protections to victims of sexual assault on college campuses, undoing rules set under the Trump administration that offered more deference to students accused of sexual misconduct to defend themselves.

In imposing the fine on Tuesday, the department went far beyond previous Clery Act penalties that came in response to high-profile cases involving widespread sexual assault perpetuated by university staff members against students.

The fine eclipsed the then-record $4.5 million penalty handed down to Michigan State University in 2019 over the sexual abuse committed by Lawrence G. Nassar. Mr. Nassar was convicted of molesting hundreds of girls and women, all while serving as a longtime sports physician for student athletes at a Michigan State University clinic.

It also far exceeded the $2.4 million levied against Penn State after the conviction of Jerry Sandusky, an assistant football coach, for sexually abusing 10 boys.

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