STILLWATER — Oklahoma State University officials leveled more than 350 student conduct charges against students accused of criminal actions in the past two years, but in no case did the university permanently remove a student from campus.
Those charges include sexual misconduct hearings the university held against Nathan Cochran, a former OSU student accused of a series of sexual assaults against male victims.
During 2011 and 2012, 360 student conduct complaints were filed against OSU students for actions that were criminal in nature, according to records obtained under the Oklahoma Open Records Act. By far the largest share — 212 charges — were for violations of the university’s drug policy.
The university held just 13 conduct hearings for sexual misconduct during the same period, making it one of the least common charges. Five of those charges were filed against Cochran, whose student conduct hearings were held Nov. 30. Cochran was found responsible for four of the five charges leveled against him.
University officials learned of the assault reports Nov. 12, but concerns over federal student privacy laws led them not to share this information with police. Instead, they held student conduct hearings resulting in a decision to suspend Cochran from the university for three years beginning with the end of the fall 2012 semester.
Police opened an investigation into the sexual assault cases Dec. 7, after a reporter from the campus newspaper contacted the department with questions about the incidents. That investigation began three and a half weeks after OSU officials became aware of the matter.
Cochran, 22, faces four counts of sexual battery in Payne County in three incidents occurring between Nov. 3, 2011, and Aug. 15, 2012.
One of the three incidents allegedly took place Nov. 3, 2011, according to court documents. In that case, a man told police Cochran groped him while he was asleep.
A second man told police Cochran groped him on Aug. 15, 2012, while the man was asleep in Cochran’s dorm room. The man told police he went to the bathroom, and that Cochran sent him a series of panicked text messages, according to court documents.
The fourth charge alleges Cochran placed his hands on a male victim’s leg and lower back and attempted to place his hands inside the man’s pants without the man’s consent while the man tried to sleep.
Authority to expel
Although OSU policy grants officials the authority to expel a student permanently, that authority is seldom exercised. OSU spokesman Gary Shutt said the university’s last permanent expulsion was in 1986, when officials expelled a student for academic misconduct.
When expelling a student, federal regulations require university officials to have “clear and convincing” evidence — a stricter requirement than the “preponderance of evidence” standard officials must meet for all other forms of punishment, including suspension.
That difference makes expulsion an extreme and rare step, Shutt said.
Temporary suspensions are more common in cases where a student is found to have violated the university’s sexual misconduct policy.
But even temporary suspensions aren’t universal.
Aside from the charges against Cochran, the university brought five sexual misconduct charges against students in 2011 and 2012. In three of those cases, the student was found not responsible for the charges. Two of the cases resulted in the student being suspended for a year.
In the remaining three cases, the student received other punishment, including being ordered to undergo sexual harassment training and write a reflective paper.
The university’s student conduct policy includes a strong presumption in favor of suspension or expulsion when a student commits violent acts that result in injury or death. But in 2011 and 2012, none of the 28 conduct hearings the university held for violations of the university’s policy against violence resulted in the student being suspended.
Daniel Swinton, the former director of student conduct and academic integrity at Vanderbilt University, said universities typically only expel students when they find them responsible for serious actions like sexual misconduct, or if that student commits a series of infractions.
“It’s not particularly common,” he said. “Every school does it, but it’s not typically a regular occurrence.”
During Swinton’s time at Vanderbilt, the university considered the option of expelling students a few times, he said.
In most cases, those students were accused of serious actions such as drug distribution or rape, he said. In other cases, the student had been found responsible for a series of disciplinary problems that, taken individually, might not have warranted as severe a punishment.
In many cases, Swinton said, university officials suspend a student in the hopes of keeping the student off campus until any victims have graduated. But that practice doesn’t prevent that student from returning after the suspension period is up and continuing to victimize other students.
Although he wouldn’t speak to OSU’s issue specifically, Swinton, now an education consultant, said cases such as Cochran’s — situations where a student is found responsible for several counts of sexual misconduct — would generally be grounds for the university to expel that student permanently.
“I think expulsion is probably warranted even with one incident,” he said. “I’m not sure what it would take to get expelled if they’re not expelled for that,” he said.