Oklahoma State University officials' claim that federal student privacy laws prevented them from notifying police about a series of possible sexual assaults is unfounded, the director of a nonprofit legal assistance group said.
Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said his organization often looks into cases where colleges and universities clamp down on transparency while citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.
Although those issues are fairly routine, LoMonte said he thinks OSU's claims are particularly indefensible.
“This one belongs in a class all by itself,” he said.
Stillwater police are investigating a series of alleged sexual assaults involving the FarmHouse fraternity.
Nathan Micheal Cochran, 22, a former member of the fraternity, faces three complaints of sexual battery involving two male OSU students.
OSU officials learned of the allegations Nov. 12, when several male students told officials they'd been sexually assaulted. University officials never contacted police about the matter, but instead held student conduct hearings against Cochran. Those hearings concluded Nov. 30. Cochran was suspended for three years beginning at the end of the fall semester and ordered to have no contact with any of the students who made complaints against him.
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, said Stillwater police Capt. Randy Dickerson.
That investigation began 31/2 weeks after OSU officials became aware of the incident.
OSU officials have maintained that FERPA requirements wouldn't have allowed them to turn over information about the assault allegations to police. But LoMonte said he doesn't think that's the case.
“The reliance on that is so frivolous that it really calls into question whether they could possibly believe that themselves,” LoMonte said.
The act includes several exceptions that might have allowed OSU officials to turn over information to police, LoMonte said. Among those provisions is one that says the law doesn't prohibit officials from notifying police about possible crimes on campus.
But Gary Clark, OSU's vice president and general counsel, said that provision doesn't override the requirement that the university protect the identities of the victims. University officials could have given Cochran's identity to police immediately after the hearings concluded Nov. 30. Clark said he didn't think that information would have been useful to police.
“What would the police be able to do with that information?” Clark said. “Nothing, as far as I can tell.”
In any case, university officials have said they didn't understand at the time that they would have been allowed to turn over Cochran's name to police.
Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said FERPA misunderstandings are fairly common.
When the department receives a complaint that a school has violated FERPA restrictions, the department writes to the institution, describing the allegation and asking for a response. He said that typically school officials misunderstood requirements and agree to comply with the law in the future.
The only way a school could face penalties for FERPA violations is if officials don't agree to stop violating the act in the future, Bradshaw said. In that case, he said, the department may levee penalties, including cutting off federal education funds. No college or university has ever been penalized for violating FERPA, he said.
LoMonte isn't the first to question OSU's handling of the alleged assaults. Stillwater police Capt. Randy Dickerson said Thursday he was “stunned” by OSU's explanation for the decision not to notify police — in particular, by university officials' contention that Cochran no longer posed a threat after being suspended from the university.
Dickerson said that after five students told university officials they had been sexually assaulted, university officials could have turned the case over to police through an exception in the law.
“I would certainly draw the conclusion that one suspect who had sexually assaulted five young men might be considered a threat to other students,” Dickerson said.
On Thursday, OSU President Burns Hargis asked Andy Lester, chairman of the Board of Regents for Oklahoma State University and the A&M Colleges, to review the university's handling of the situation through a task force that was set up over the summer. The task force was established to review policies after the sexual misconduct scandal that rocked Penn State University last year.
“We cannot leave any doubt that we are indeed properly and appropriately handling sexual misconduct allegations, and we must determine if we need to amend our policies and procedures to more effectively and efficiently handle these types of matters in the future,” Hargis said.