BYU-I sexual abuse Title IX lawsuit moves forward after 6 years

Photo of BYU-I campus, by EastIdahoNews.com staff member.

By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports

A federal judge determined this month that the six-year-old lawsuit against Brigham Young University-Idaho, revolving around allegations of sexual impropriety, must move forward. 

A female student filed the lawsuit in 2016, alleging a professor was sexually harassing and abusing her at the university. 

The professor, Stephen Stokes, died in July 2016 due to complications during a medical procedure, according to court documents. Stokes met the student in 2014. 

The woman claims teacher-on-student hostile environment/sexual harassment is a violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act. She also claimed teacher-on-student quid pro quo sexual harassment in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and Americans with Disabilities Act and in violation of the Idaho Human Rights Act. 

Idaho Reports does not disclose the names of potential sexual assault victims. 

After years of litigation, BYU-I asked the court in September for a summary judgment on the issue.

“In short, BYUI exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any potentially sexually harassing behavior and (the woman) unreasonably failed to take advantage of BYUI’s preventative or corrective opportunities or otherwise avoid the harm,” the filing says.

The court disagreed, sharply calling BYU-I’s actions potentially “deliberate indifference” to victims. 

Allegations

According to a copy of U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s March 2 order, the student was reported to have “suffered a history of abusive relationships that has caused her to have mental health issues, including severe anxiety, agoraphobia, and PTSD.” 

Her counselors reportedly encouraged her to attend BYU-I because they believed it would be safe.

The woman met with the BYU-I disability office to arrange accommodations and the office directed her to speak with her professors.

She first met Stokes in June of 2014 when signing up for a class he instructed. 

The student alleges Stokes started as her advisor but began integrating into her life and calling and texting her frequently. She alleged Stokes began isolating her from her mental health counselors and church leaders.

She accused Stokes of telling her “that he was the only one who could help her, he had been directed by God that he was the only one who could help her, and she could not trust anyone else.”

He began touching her, progressing to what he called “spinal touch therapy,” and then to sexual touching, according to court documents. Stokes allegedly went to her home uninvited, took off her clothes and touched her without her permission.

Stokes allegedly told the woman “that sexual intercourse was acceptable within church doctrine as long as he did not ejaculate inside of her. At one point, Stokes, who was already married to someone else, performed what he claimed was a “marriage ceremony” to the student.”

Some of the sexual abuse occurred in Stokes’ office at the BYU-I campus, according to the claims.

The woman involved reportedly told her friend, Danielle Spencer, and Spencer told a BYU-I counselor, Lisa Fox. Spencer also later confronted Stokes, who reportedly said he loved the alleged victim and referred to her as his “wife,” though he was still legally married to another woman. Spencer also told Dan Barnes, a counselor and professor at BYU-I. 

Eventually, Dean Steve Dennis, of the College of Education and Human Development, was notified but the concerns were not elevated to Human Resources nor a Title IX investigation, according to the document. Dennis said he was not aware of all the details that Nathan Meeker, the Chair of the Department, knew about the harassment or abuse.

The department’s only response was to send Stokes an email, telling Stokes to stop all non-academic interactions with the student.

The student involved never returned to campus and the department did not follow-up with her, according to the court order.

The alleged victim claimed Stokes threatened Spencer’s educational opportunities and was concerned about what Stokes might do to interfere with her own ability to complete her degree if she took further action against him. 

Title IX and the Honor Code 

Barnes did reach out to the woman after she learned of Stokes’ death, but she “was not provided with support from anyone at BYU-I to ensure that she could continue to attend school.”

The woman claims she requested a Title IX investigation through her counselor, according to her claims, but BYU-I reportedly didn’t initiate one.

The complaint alleges BYU-I also refused to allow the woman to meet Title IX Coordinator Nick Rammell in the presence of her attorney. Further, Rammell allegedly told her that he encourages parties to not report issues of sexual misconduct to the Title IX office and to seek help outside of BYU-I because of BYU-I’s failure to grant amnesty from the Honor Code.

BYU-I’s Honor Code aligns with teachings from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It includes a statement saying students must live “a chaste and virtuous life, including abstaining from any sexual relations outside a marriage between a man and a woman.”

Moving forward

In his written order, Winmill disagreed with BYU-I’s argument that the woman “failed to put forward evidence demonstrating that an “appropriate person” under Title IX had “actual knowledge” of Stokes’ sexual harassment.”

Winmill wrote “Here, the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to (the woman), demonstrates that (the woman) and Spencer reported the Stokes-(student) relationship to numerous individuals employed by BYU-I.”

“Further, the evidence shows that Meeker is a supervisor of Stokes and had authority to take action to remedy Stokes’ misconduct,” Winmill wrote. “BYU-I does not dispute that Meeker is an “appropriate person” under Title IX.”

The judge noted that with the exception of an email sent to Stokes,  “There is no evidence that, following this email, anyone at BYU-I followed up with (the woman), Stokes, or in any other manner, to confirm that Stokes was following the direction to cease all nonacademic interactions” with the student.

Winmill also took issue with the Honor Code office and Title IX office sharing information. 

“In addition, there is evidence that BYU-I fails to adequately train its employees on Title IX; that BYU-I applies its policy inconsistently in sexual misconduct cases such that victims are disregarded and offenders are protected; that claims of sexual misconduct against faculty can be decided within a department rather than by the Title IX or HR office; and that there is a general policy of victim blaming, particularly where the complaint is against faculty,” Winmill wrote.

Winmill went on to say the issue “demonstrates an official policy of deliberate indifference to a known overall risk of sexual harassment, including the risks that sexual misconduct will occur but not be reported and investigated, that those who perpetrate sexual misconduct will be emboldened and victims will not report and not be protected.”

The court also denied BYU-I’s request for dismissal of the claim made by the woman under the Idaho Human Rights Act for gender discrimination.

“BYU-I relies solely on its contention that it cannot be held vicariously liable under the IHRA for Stokes’ conduct. The Court disagrees and will thus deny summary judgment on this claim.” 

The judge did grant BYU-I’s request for dismissal of the woman’s claim that it created a hostile educational environment under the Rehabilitation Act. 

BYU-I also argued that the destruction and manipulation of  text messages by the woman was intentional and was for the purpose of depriving BYU-I of evidence and allowing her “to craft a misleading narrative.” The plaintiff reported that happening in an AT&T store factory reset and the court did not find the new evidence sufficient to warrant reconsideration of an evidence spoliation ruling.

The next court hearing in the case is set for 1:30 p.m. March 22.

Idaho Reports did email and leave a voicemail for BYU-I’s media relations office seeking comment but did not receive a response by Thursday morning.

Idaho Reports also left messages for the female student’s attorney but did not receive a response by Thursday.


<strong>Ruth Brown</strong> | Producer
Ruth Brown | Producer

Ruth Brown grew up in South Dakota and her first job out of college was covering the South Dakota Legislature. She’s since moved on to Idaho lawmakers. Brown spent 10 years working in print journalism, including newspapers such as the Idaho Statesman and Idaho Press, where she’s covered everything from the correctional system to health care issues. She joined Idaho Reports in 2021 and looks forward to telling stories about how state policy can impact the lives of regular Idahoans.

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