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Liberty University Ignores Counseling Intern Sarah Leitner’s Abuse Claims, Expels Her Instead

sarah leitner

Sarah Leitner is a regular commenter on this blog. What follows is her story about being abused while a counseling intern and how Liberty University ignored her personal and legal appeals for help. You can read more about Sarah’s story at the Thou Art the Man blog.

From Fall 2015 to February 2016, as a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision student [at Liberty University], I was a counseling intern at a Navy brig. Due to my site supervisor’s actions, I feared for my life on two occasions, leading to PTSD. Many other occasions were filled with lower levels of abuse. Simultaneously, my daughter’s mental crises worsened leaving me with constant crises at an abusive internship site and constant crises at home.

Dr. [Melvin] Pride, the Clinical Supervisor at Liberty University and part of the leadership of the Counselor Education and Supervision program, refused to assist, even as I described the unsafe situation in multiple emails, including an email in mid-February 2016 where I explicitly stated I was not safe. Often it seemed as if Dr. Pride did not read my emails as he responded late or not at all. Sometimes he would respond to crises with irrelevant statements, such as how busy he was, instead of responding and/or removing me from the internship site. When I resigned from the site in February 2016, Liberty University continued to deny the abuse had occurred. I wondered how a professor who was supposed to have at least some experience with counseling trauma could miss the traumatic experiences I was undergoing, experiences that made me feel as if I was an indentured servant at the internship site.

In Fall 2016, after asking for an investigation from the department, Title IX, and multiple other departments of the University, I reluctantly went to a second internship site. Simultaneously, in Fall 2016 I filed a complaint with the Inspector General for the Bureau of Personnel (IG BUPERS) and again attempted to file Title IX within Liberty University. The Interim Dean of the School of Behavioral Sciences, Dr. [Steve] Warren, agreed, in writing, to postpone the final grade appeal until the IG Report was complete.

However, Dean [Lisa] Sosin, part of the Ph.D. program’s leadership, falsely told the IG that I had not reported abuse until I left the internship site. Based on this as well as statements from the offenders, the IG closed the complaint in late December 2016.

Simultaneous to the IG investigation, in November 2016, I attempted to withdraw from the internship course, now taught by Dr. [Mary] Deacon, due to the PTSD and my daughter’s quickly deteriorating mental health. The request was quickly denied. I was forced to continue the internship. I would find out later that Dr. Sosin had told the Investigator that I had not said I had been abused at the site while I was at the internship, despite the many emails I had sent to her and the department.

Around December 5, 2016, days after I found out my child was not safe at school and had been assaulted daily at camp in Summer 2015, Dr. Sosin and the leadership of the Ph.D. program – likely Dr. Deacon and Dr. Pride – sent me a letter of concern with many inaccurate statements. The letter also stated that all of my grade appeals were over even though one was remaining. When I emailed Dr. Sosin, I was not allowed to dispute the inaccuracies. I abandoned the last, final appeal with Dean Warren because I believed I would be expelled if I continued that appeal.

From late November 2016 to January 2017, I was an intern for Win4Life, working at Shield Ministries. This was arranged because most Shield Ministry clients lacked transportation to come to Win4Life. Dr. Deacon and Dr. Pride were notified of this in December 2016 and did not reply. In December 2016, my supervisor at Win4Life and I met with Shield Ministries discuss how Win4Life could work with Shield Ministries in the future beyond my internship. At that point, my supervisor at Win4Life, myself, and Liberty University did not know that David Truluck was a sex offender as he was not forthcoming with this information. In late January, David Truluck of Shield Ministries texted me, telling me that he had to get board approval for me to be an intern there.

February 2017: My licensure supervisor and I notified Dr. Deacon that the Win4Life partnership with Shield Ministries would be dissolved due to the actions of an erratic individual (David Truluck). Even though Dr. Deacon and Dr. Pride had previously been appraised of the situation in two emails, and had responded to one of the emails, in February 2017 Dr. Deacon and Dr. Pride chose to expel me from the Ph.D. program when David Truluck at Shield Ministries denied a contract with Win4Life existed. Liberty University decided that Shield Ministries had been an “unauthorized” internship site, even though at that time Liberty University gave no guidelines or examples in the course manual that would give me, Win4Life, or any other individual any reason to believe I was at an unauthorized internship site. Although my supervisor at Win4Life and my licensure supervisor both spoke to Liberty University on my behalf, Liberty University refused to change its decision.

In Fall 2017, the official grade appeal process was completed. I attempted to file with Title IX on at least two more occasions. In early Spring 2019, due to a FERPA request, I received additional documentation from Liberty. The documentation I received from Liberty University due to my FERPA request was extensive, repetitive, often incorrect, and missing key details. Thus I do not believe this documentation was in compliance with federal law. I also found out, much to my surprise, that Liberty University had decided I had been “unethical” because I didn’t have a license as a counselor – when I did have one!

As my attempts to seek justice and to ensure the safety of future Liberty University students, I emailed Jerry Falwell on October 21, 2018, notifying him that I had been “ordered to return to an internship site where I was not safe,” and “was not allowed to withdraw from the internship course when I found out my child was not safe at school and had been sexually assaulted every day at camp 15 months earlier.” Furthermore, I asked Jerry Falwell, “How is it okay that mentioning a safety issue means I went round and round with the university and no department at the University has authority to do anything?”

Jerry Falwell responded on October 25, 2018, stating: “I have looked into this situation and understand that there are several trustworthy people at the University that have already been diligent in working with you. …” — which left me wondering who these people were.

On October 26, 2018, David Corry, general counsel for Liberty University, responded to me via email, stating: “…I am also aware of your allegations regarding our faculty interactions with the Inspector General… We are satisfied that at this time all your concerns have been handled and addressed appropriately…. Under the circumstances, any future communications you send may not be responded to by the University. We wish you well.”

Sarah is taking legal action against Liberty University. You can read Dr. Charlotte Murrow Taylor’s report about Sarah’s claims here.

4 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Darcy

    You have a link for Truluk in that post and it leads to LinkedIn. I didn’t have my password handy so I could not log in. Just hoping Truluk’s LinkedIn profile clearly states his hobby of molesting children, since it is probably the reason for his various jobs. :-/

  2. Avatar
    Charles S. Oaxpatu

    I read this post and the recommended paper at the end of it. Perhaps I am just a dumb butt today, but after reading all of that, I still did not fully understand what was going on, what Sarah expected or hoped to happen, and why she was booted from the program. It all sounds very circuitous and confusing to me. However, that said, I have a few comments:

    (1) Christian fundamentalist theology has little to zero understanding or respect for people experiencing emotional/mental health problems—believing that most such problems arise from a person’s own sins—often secretly held sins that are eating away at a person’s heart and soul deep inside them. Therefore, I think their indifference and lack of compassion for Sarah, her problems, and those of her molested daughter were perfectly predictable ahead of time. Wrong—-very wrong—-but nonetheless predictable.

    (2) Christian fundamentalists have a long history of mistreating women. I think it would be fair to say that if anything goes wrong at a Christian fundamentalist institution—-and a woman and daughter are at the center of the storm—-the institution will conclude that the females are the problem—-rather than the true situations and circumstances—-and decide that the best way to end the problem is to boot the women out of Eden—-because no matter what the problem might be—-in a Christian fundamentalist environment—-it is always the woman’s fault—-no matter what evils or omissions the male parties did or did not do.

    (3) A Christian fundamentalist institution will tell Sarah that she has the strength of the Holy Spirit living within her. Therefore, no matter how tough a situation might be, she needs to stay with any selected program of study and finish it—-using the full power of the Holy Spirit to rise victorious above every problem and circumstance thrown at both her and her daughter. Failure to do so reflects lack of faith in the female persons involved and in the power of the Holy Spirit—-and everyone knows that any major slippage in faith—-no matter what the cause in Fundieland—-is really, really, really bad. I am guessing that Liberty University was making a judgement against Sarah’s level of faith and a parallel judgement saying—in essence—-“we have concluded that your faith is so soft that there is no way you can ever successfully complete this program of study—-so goodbye forever.”

    I do not think Sarah can win this in court because Liberty University will eventually bring religion into court and claim that she was ejected for theological reasons. My best advice would be for Sarah to boot Christian fundamentalism and finish her Ph.D. at a nonreligious and nonfundie university. I suspect most of her credits would transfer. My final advice to everyone—-stay away from Liberty University and similar institutions if you are a woman.

    • Avatar
      Charles S. Oaxpatu

      One final related comment. I am retired now, but if I were working again and hiring people for jobs as I once did, I would never hire a person with any college degree from Liberty University or any other such university, if that degree is straight-on pertinent to the content of the job. I see such college degrees in the same light as those from small, for-profit colleges such as South College, Capella University, Strayer University, DeVry University, etc. I will only hire people who have been through a truly rigorous and thorough degree curriculum such as those at The Ohio State University, University of California (Berkeley), The University of Tennessee, New York University, Northwestern University, University of Florida, etc. I think any such transfer to a Ph.D.program at one of these places would greatly enhance Sarah’s ability to get hired after college.

  3. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I feel for Sarah. Evangelicalism deep down doesn’t view women as fully human beings capable of making our own decisions and judgments, so it’s no surprise that Liberty would brush off Sarah and her situations. I hope she is successful in her legal proceedings

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