STILLWATER — Oklahoma State University is this year's winner of a dubious award given to “highlight the most heinous violations of the public's right to know.”
The national chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists announced OSU is the winner of its third annual Black Hole Award, a title it gives to violators of open records law.
OSU received the award for officials' decision not to notify police or the public about a series of alleged sexual assaults on campus. At the time, OSU officials repeatedly said they weren't able to do so because of restrictions under the Federal Education Rights Privacy Act, commonly known as FERPA.
In a statement, Don Meyers, a member of the society's freedom of information committee, called that claim “the textbook definition of egregious.”
“If a municipal police force had pulled that shenanigan, they'd be in trouble on multiple fronts,” he said.
“FERPA was not meant to be a Harry Potter-like invisibility cloak that could turn any record that names a student into a protected document.”
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. University officials learned of the assault reports Nov. 12, but did not contact police, citing FERPA concerns.
Instead, university 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.
OSU has heard criticism from a number of quarters for its handling of the case, including from an independent investigator hired by the Board of Regents for Oklahoma State University and the A&M Colleges to look into the case.
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's response to the allegations was “misguided” and that officials misinterpreted FERPA when they claimed it prohibited them from calling police. The report also concludes university officials didn't break any law in not contacting police.
OSU was nominated for the title by the Virginia-based nonprofit Student Press Law Center. Frank LoMonte, executive director, said it's fairly common for colleges and universities to withhold information with little legal justification for doing so. But in most cases, the information the schools withhold doesn't involve a possible sexual predator.
“It's really, really egregious when the withholding actually puts people in physical danger,” he said. “That was the case at Oklahoma State.”