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Liberty University fined record $14m for violating campus safety rules

Students seen on the Liberty University campus in Lynchburg, Virginia in March 2020 (AFP via Getty Images)
Students seen on the Liberty University campus in Lynchburg, Virginia in March 2020 (AFP via Getty Images)

Liberty University in Virginia has agreed to pay out $14m after the United States Department of Education found it violated campus safety laws.

The Department found multiple instances between 2016 and 2023 of the college, which is a private Christian institution, breaking rules around informing the campus about emergencies and dangerous situations.

A 100-page report released by the DOE outlined a “systemic and persistent failure” by leadership to develop and implement adequate campus safety and crime prevention programs.

The DOE’s Federal Student Aid office found that the college had violated the Clery Act, which requires colleges taking part in federal student aid programs to provide accurate information on public safety issues to students, parents, employees, and prospective students and staff.

Even though Liberty is a private Christian college, its participation in federal student aid means it is subject to DOE scrutiny under the Clery Act. It received over $880m in student loans and grants in 2022-23.

“Students, faculty, and staff deserve to know that they can be safe and secure in their school communities. We respond aggressively to complaints about campus safety and security,” FSA Chief Operating Officer Richard Cordray said in a statement.

“Through the Clery Act schools are obligated to take action that creates safe and secure campus communities, investigate complaints, and responsibly disclose information about crimes and other safety concerns. We will continue to hold schools accountable if they fail to do so.”

Reacting to the announcement, Liberty University said the DOE had treated it differently to other universities but added that it had agreed to spend an additional $2m on campus safety improvements, on top of the $14m going to the federal government.

“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,” Liberty University said in a statement.

“We acknowledge and regret these past failures and have taken these necessary improvements seriously.”

In a leaked draft of the DOE report in January, it was alleged that staff at the college had destroyed evidence as the review began in 2022. The college denied this.

The draft also outlined some of the safety concerns which had gone unreported, including gas leaks and bomb threats.

Some of the failures listed in the official DOE report included the college’s lack of compliance with requirements to offer clear assistance and advice to victims of sexual violence, not effectively recording crime statistics, and not providing clear enough campus safety messages.

Liberty insisted on Tuesday that it had already made vast improvements to all of these procedures, adding that it was “a new day” at the college.

“We will continue to work in cooperation with the Department to prioritise student safety and to advocate for a fair, consistent, and principled standard of Clery compliance that is applied equally to all universities without prejudice,” the statement concluded.