STILLWATER — Oklahoma State University officials must now call police as soon as they learn of a reported sexual assault on campus.
The Board of Regents for Oklahoma State University and the A&M Colleges approved a package of policy changes related to campus safety and security at a meeting Friday. Although many of them are in response to a series of alleged sexual assaults at OSU, most of them apply to every college and university the board oversees.
Among the new policies is a requirement that officials at every college and university in the system notify police after learning of possible sexual assaults on campus.
The board also voted to update an ethics policy that was already in place, including requiring schools to create an online system for anyone with concerns about campus sexual misconduct to report the issue to campus officials. A similar system is already in place at OSU.
The board also voted to create the position of independent advocate for sexual assault victims. That person will work with sexual assault victims, making them aware of their rights and helping them deal with police, medical personnel and university administrators.
That person would answer to the board of regents, not to the administration at any particular university or college.
The policy changes came at the recommendation of a Regents task force that reviewed policies at the system level and each institution. Initially, the review came in response to the recent sex abuse scandal at Penn State University.
Handling of claims
OSU President Burns Hargis asked the task force in December to review the university's handling of a series of sexual assault claims against a former OSU student.
Former OSU student Nathan Cochran, 22, faces four counts of sexual battery in Payne County in connection with three incidents reported as occurring between Nov. 3, 2011, and Aug. 15.
Cochran is accused of groping male students while they slept. He is scheduled to appear in Payne County District Court at 10 a.m. Monday.
OSU officials learned of the assault reports Nov. 12 but did not contact police, citing concerns about the Federal Education Rights Privacy Act, commonly known as FERPA.
Instead, OSU officials 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.
Stillwater police opened an investigation Dec. 7, after a reporter from the OSU school newspaper contacted the department with questions about the alleged incidents. That investigation began three and a half weeks after OSU officials became aware of the matter.
During the review, the board hired Dallas-based attorney James Sears Bryant to serve as an independent counsel. The board released Bryant's findings Monday, along with the recommendations the task force prepared before the allegations came to light.
The Bryant report concludes OSU officials' response to the allegations was “misguided” and that officials misinterpreted FERPA when they claimed it prohibited them from calling police.
The report also concludes that university officials didn't break any law in not contacting police about the allegations.
Hargis said he appreciated the task force's work and looked forward to implementing the policies the board adopted. Hargis said he expected the new policy would help guide the university's response to similar situations in the future.
“I think the report and the policy that's been adopted brings great clarity to an otherwise fairly unclear portion of the law,” he said.
During the meeting, board Chairman Andy Lester said the task force took into account the needs of every campus the board oversees. The task force included representatives from a number of disciplines at several of the campuses, he said.
“This was not simply an Oklahoma State University task force,” Lester said. “It was a task force for all of the A&M institutions.”
Although the task force review is concluded, Lester said it's important that board members and officials at each of the colleges and universities in the system continue to examine their policies.
“It's an ongoing process, not just for the board, but for everybody at all of our campuses,” he said. “By the time the ink dries ... we'll need to start reviewing these policies again.”