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Bob Jones University student allegedly suspended for sex-abuse activism

Cap and Gown

By Michael Saba, special to CNN

(CNN) – Former Bob Jones University student Chris Peterman expected to graduate on May 4. But on April 24, nine days before he was set to receive his diploma, the 23-year-old poli-sci major was suspended from school.

According to BJU, Peterman was suspended for a variety of infractions involving the school’s code of conduct. Most of the violations involved Peterman’s activity on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Peterman responded by uploading videos to CNN iReport alleging that he was the victim of a pattern of intimidation and coercion on the part of several BJU staff and administrators. He claims to have been forced out of school in retaliation for his activism against Chuck Phelps, a former BJU Board of Trustees member who was accused of covering up a sex-abuse scandal at the church where he served as pastor.

Carol Keirstead, BJU’s Chief Communications Officer, denied these allegations.

“Outraged” by scandal

The Greenville, South Carolina-based college is well known for its Christian-conservative culture. BJU requires students to sign a covenant every year dictating permissible on- and off-campus behaviors. The school enforces strict prohibitions against the use of alcohol and drugs, premarital sex and public demonstrations for causes or institutions opposed by BJU.

In July 2010, Pastor Phelps resigned from his position at Trinity Baptist Church in Concord, New Hampshire, over allegations that he helped cover up repeated instances of sexual abuse committed by an older male parishioner against his step-daughter. The parishioner is currently serving a 15-30 year prison sentence on statutory rape charges.

The girl was impregnated, and then-Pastor Phelps compelled her to publicly apologize in front of the church congregation for the “sin” of her pregnancy. Phelps was accused of providing board for her in a guest room over his garage until the baby could be put up for adoption, according to reporting by ABC.

Phelps explained his actions in a statement released on his website. “There was certainly no intent to cover up the allegations or hide [her],” the statement said. “I have always been committed to a policy of compliance and partnership with official investigations of any kind.”

When Peterman heard news of the initial allegations against Chuck Phelps, he was outraged that Phelps was allowed to continue to hold his chair as a Board member, Peterman said. He posted links about the story on his personal Facebook account, and was called into a meeting with BJU’s Dean of Men, Jon Daulton. The Deans of Men and Women are gender-specific assistants to the school’s Dean of Students.

“I was told that I’d have to stop posting that stuff, or I would be expelled,” Peterman said in an interview with CNN. The Dean of Men “said that the administration was upset with what I was saying. He said that the public relations department was following everything because it was giving Bob Jones a bad name.”

Keirstead said that BJU was not commenting on specific allegations made by Peterman.

Personal motivation

Peterman had a personal motivation behind his activism: A practicing Baptist, he has also witnessed a church cover-up of sexual abuse, he said.

“I knew this, so I had this desire to tell my story, and help other people tell their stories.” Peterman said he’d rather not give any more specifics on the incident, for fear of hurting and embarrassing his family and community.

In an effort to abide by BJU rules and continue his activism, Peterman created the “Do Right BJU” Facebook page, which drew considerable attention from BJU students and the local community. The group’s mission was, in Peterman’s words, to “provide a support and outreach network for victims of sexual abuse in the BJU community.”

Peterman said that he continued to share stories about the Phelps scandal on the “Do Right BJU” Facebook page.

When Peterman created the Facebook page and organized a “Do Right BJU” protest on September 12, 2011, he was told by the Dean of Men to shut it down immediately, he said. He said he told the Dean he believed his actions were protected by the First Amendment, and that the Department of Education expressly protected his activism.

“They backed off. … I went home that Christmas, Chuck Phelps resigned from the board, and Bob Jones announced that they were going to form a sexual abuse committee,” he said. “I thought everything was good. I was talking with abuse victims and referring them to a support network, RAIN. I had other students joining in. It was very good.”

Disciplined for using social media

When Peterman returned to BJU in January 2012 for his final semester, he claims he was called in for special weekly counseling with the Dean of Men. “I had questioned the authority of the university, so by association, I had questioned the authority of God himself,” he said. “Therefore, I had a deep spiritual problem he needed to fix.”

“I would go into these meetings, two to three times a week, for an hour or more at a time, sometimes even at midnight. He would have a printout of my Facebook, and have things highlighted and starred. If anyone appeared in the picture with me, he would have their names highlighted and their faces circled,” he said.

“I felt like I was being harassed and followed. … He would also call my friends in and question them about me, all in an effort to isolate me and shut me up.”

Keirstead declined to comment on these allegations.

By April, with only a month left in the school year, Peterman felt confident that he was going to graduate. But then, during the school’s Spring Break Bible conference, he Tweeted about the length of a service, five minutes before it began: “This thing is 2hrs long!? What could they possibly talk about for that long!”

“The Dean of Men calls me in and says I sent that Tweet during the Bible conference, which isn’t true,” he said. “I explained that it was right before, not during, but he says he doesn’t believe me and that they’re going to give me 25 demerits. That was the first time I’d ever gotten demerits.”

According to BJU officials, if a Bob Jones student accrues 150 demerits during the course of a semester, they’re suspended from the school for a full semester. “I knew, at that point, that this was going to be difficult,” he said. “They had gotten tired of me, because I refused to be quiet.”

This, he contends, was the beginning of a pattern of harassment on the part of the BJU administration in retaliation for his activism the previous semester.

Suspended for watching “Glee?”

Three weeks before graduation, he said he was informed by the Dean of Men that he was reported by another student for watching TV off-campus, and would be facing another round of demerits.

He told CNN he was at an off-campus Starbucks, drinking coffee and watching “Glee” when he got called into the office and asked what he had been watching.

“I didn’t lie to them. I had been watching ‘Glee’ since my freshman year, I didn’t think I had anything to fear.”

Though there are no prohibitions in BJU’s student handbook against watching TV off-campus (on-campus TV viewing is not allowed), Peterman said that he was given 50 demerits because of the show’s “morally reprehensible” tolerance for, among other things, homosexuality.

“So I’m at about 120 demerits now,” he said. “I was so scared. Up until that semester, I had never had any demerits. It’s not like I was a bad kid who broke all the rules.”

Peterman said he was called in again the following week for posting the lyrics to a contemporary Christian country song on his Facebook during class, and was informed that he would receive another 75 demerits and be suspended from BJU.

He appealed the ruling, and reached out to local CNN affiliate WSPA, who ran a story on his suspension, where he claimed at the time that he was being forced off campus for watching “Glee.”

When the appeals board reviewed his case on April 24, during exam week, they accepted his appeal and ruled that he would only be given 25 demerits, and would be allowed to graduate.

“I wanted to cry,” he said. “I thought that God had answered my prayers, everything’s gonna be alright. So, everybody starts to leave the room, and it’s just me, the Dean of Students, and the Dean of Men. Then the Dean of Men says that they’re kicking me out because I tried to intimidate BJU.”

Peterman said they told him that the intimidation consisted of contacting the media, and the Department of Education and the school’s accreditation organization.

“They really didn’t like that I contacted the media. They told me I was out, and they had a guy follow me around campus, I had to pack my bags and I was off campus in two hours. They didn’t care where I went, they just told me to pack my bags.”

Peterman said he was informed that he would be arrested if he attempted to re-enter the BJU campus.

When asked for comment, BJU’s Chief Communications Officer confirmed that Peterman was suspended for these infractions, but said that the suspension was not connected to his activism against Chuck Phelps. “If we had been going to suspend him for that, we would have suspended him right then and there. He wouldn’t have been back this semester,” she said. “The suspension had nothing to do with the protests.”

Since his expulsion, Peterman said he has received an outpouring of support from “hundreds” of former BJU students and members of the community.

A crisis of faith

The ordeal shook Peterman’s Christian faith to its core. “Having to deal with all this, just fighting for abuse victims and trying to get help from them, and seeing their response to that, it has almost made me an agnostic,” he said. “I really almost lost my faith. I was very desperate.”

“Throughout this whole thing, I’ve been in contact with hundreds of people who encouraged me and prayed for me,” he said. “That is what has kept me a Christian, their support.”

He’s also convinced that the reason he was suspended had nothing to do with “Glee” or Facebook. He believes he was suspended for speaking up about sexual abuse within the church.

“These movements, they’re springing up within fundamentalist churches, and they’re calling for accountability,” he said. “We believe these abuse victims, and if you’re coming forward and talking to us, we can help you and get you support. That’s what this is all about, abuse victims need to have a voice.”

Peterman has appealed his case to BJU’s provost, and still hopes to return to the school to finish his degree.

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