Brigham Young University students and graduates call for a more forgiving honor code system

An Instagram account called Honor Code stories and an online petition with 11,000 signatures are calling for change.

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By Caroline Radnofsky

A graduate of Utah's Brigham Young University, a private university owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, wanted to give students a way to voice concerns about the school's honor code system after what she said were her own bad experiences with it.

Sidney Draughon waited until she received her diploma last fall because, she said, as students, "People don't talk about the honor code. You can't talk about the honor code."

She started an Instagram account in January called Honor Code Stories that has become a forum for current and former BYU students to anonymously share their experiences of being reprimanded by the school's honor code office.

It already has more than 19,000 followers.

A separate online petition calling for the university to update its honor code system has amassed nearly 11,000 signatures as of Thursday.

Draughon said her own experience with the honor code office was in her freshman year.

She said she was called into the office and placed on probation for a year over an old photo from social media in which she was "dressed immodestly," and a crude joke she had favorited on Twitter years earlier about handsome men in the Mormon Church.

The honor code statement on the BYU website calls on students to "live a chaste and virtuous life," "use clean language," and "observe dress and grooming standards," among other standards.

Draughon, who now lives and works in New York City, said students sign a pledge when they enter the university to uphold the honor code, which she said makes sense.

"We have to be consistent with our church activities, which all makes sense with a religious institution. I wouldn’t ask for much less than that," said Draughon, who said she was raised Mormon but that her family has since left the church.

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"But there’s so much more that goes behind that code and enforcing it, and we don’t realize what we’re signing," she said. "It’s not so much about you and God and your church anymore, it’s also this office, 4th floor in Wilkinson Center -- that’s where you’re going to go to repent."

NBC News reached out to BYU and a university spokesman responded in an email.

"Although we don’t have an official statement for you, we are aware of the anonymous posts on the Instagram account you mentioned," the spokesman said. "I should add, we are always seeking input from our students."

NBC News has not independently verified any of the stories submitted on the Instagram account.

One post by someone who identified themselves as a former student said, "I was suspended for three semesters for attempting suicide because my attempt involved alcohol and pills."

The person continued that in a meeting at the university, "I was supposed to 'explain myself' and I was fresh out of the psych ward, and just sobbed and sobbed while I was talked to like I was a stupid child," the ex-student added.

Another person claimed in a post that she was violently sexually assaulted after a date, but was afraid to report the attack because her having been in the unnamed assailant's bedroom might be considered a violation of the honor code.

Draughon said it is impossible to independently verify each story posted on the Instagram account. But she said she recognizes details in other people’s stories from her own experience, such as students who interact with the office being assigned an honor code counselor and the number of days they would wait for an appointment.

She said that during her time on probation, she had to attend regular meetings with an honor code counselor — at first every two weeks, then every month.

She claims that in her meeting with the honor code office, the old social media photo and tweet she had favorited had been blown up on 8.5-by-11-inch sheets of paper for emphasis.

"It was a crude tweet and an immodest picture," Draughon said. "If I were perfect, I wouldn’t have done them."

But she said that during her probation and the meetings with the honor code counselor, "You're talking about how sorry you are, over and over. You’re writing journal entries about repentance. For something that happened years ago, that seems so small."

"But if you want to stay in school, you have to say that," she said.

Draughon said she loves her church and her alma mater, but she was disturbed by the apparent power the honor code office, a nonecclesiastical authority, allegedly wields.

"It's not so much about you and God and your church anymore. It's also about this office," she said. 'That's where you're going to go to repent."

The online petition calls on BYU to update the honor code to reflect that "not everyone has the same moral, health and grooming standards and that 18-22 year old kids make mistakes." An updated code would allow for the elimination of the honor code office because students would learn lessons "in a loving environment without looking over their shoulders."

Daniel Arkin contributed.