Online jail records show that Atwell, 58, was arrested on campus last month and booked on one count of sexual battery and one count of abduction by force.
The charges reportedly stem from an incident on Sept. 15, but details on the alleged abduction were not immediately available Thursday. References to Atwell have been scrubbed from the Liberty University website and administrators confirmed to NBC News that the professor has been suspended indefinitely.
William Atwell Accused of Kidnapping, Sexual Assault
According to the court filings, Atwell — who reportedly taught American Sign Language — was arrested by Liberty University police on Nov. 20. Lynchburg jail records show he spent nine days behind bars before being released on $3,000 cash bail Monday.
Neither the court filings nor the booking records offer specifics of the alleged abduction, though statements from university administrators confirm that the incident involved an LU student.
“Liberty University takes nothing more seriously than claims that a faculty member has had inappropriate sexual contact with one of our students, something for which there is zero tolerance,” a spokesperson said Thursday. “With the student’s consent, the university turned the matter over to the appropriate legal authorities and the faculty member in question was arrested.”
Atwell’s page on an academic networking site says that he began teaching at LU in 2013. Before that, he was a Baptist pastor and taught at Lamar University in Texas. The 58-year-old obtained a doctorate in deaf studies and deaf education from Lamar in 2013, according to the profile.
While no longer in custody, the Liberty University professor is due back in court to answer both charges on Jan. 25, jail records show. If convicted of abduction and sexual battery – a felony and a misdemeanor under Virginia law, respectively – Atwell could face a combined 11 years in prison and up to $5,000 in fines.
Liberty University Under Fire for Sexual Misconduct Claims
Atwell’s arrest isn’t the first time Liberty University officials have scrambled to respond to allegations of sexual misconduct by faculty.
In October, dozens of former students and staff spoke anonymously to ProPublica about what they claimed was a culture of silence at the school surrounding sexual abuse and violence. The sources said that reports of rape and other misconduct were routinely shrugged off by administrators, and some claimed they were threatened with reprisals for stepping forward.
Liberty University is a private, evangelical institution that forbids students from engaging in premarital sex or drinking through its official “student honor code,” dubbed “The Liberty Way.”
Some of the women who spoke to ProPublica reported that LU administrators tended to blame women for “breaking” the code instead of duly investigating sexual assault allegations.
The university is also facing a Title IX lawsuit, alleging that the “public and repeated retaliation against women who did report their victimization” constitutes discrimination. In a July statement acknowledging the legal complaint, university president Jerry Prevo said the “allegations in the […] lawsuit are deeply troubling, if they turn out to be true.”
“Many of the claims are the complete opposite of how the University’s policies and procedures were designed to operate over the years,” Prevo continued. “Liberty University will not tolerate Title IX violations, sexual abuse or sexual assault in any form at any time.”