STILLWATER — Oklahoma State University President Burns Hargis has asked for an investigation after OSU officials handled a series of sexual assault reports as an academic matter rather than notifying police.
OSU student Nathan Cochran, 22, was charged Wednesday with three counts of sexual battery in a case police first learned about Dec. 6 through the university’s student newspaper. The allegations involve groping of genitals and conduct related to oral sex involving male students targeted after they had fallen asleep.
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 conduct hearings resulting in a decision to suspend Cochran from the university for three years beginning with the end of the semester Friday.
Hargis said the school must clear up questions on how Cochran’s case was handled “and, if warranted, amend and strengthen our policies and procedures while abiding by federal laws.”
Hargis has asked that Andy Lester, chairman of the OSU/A&M Board of Regents, conduct the investigation through a task force that was set up over the summer to review policies after the sexual misconduct scandal involving former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
Gary Clark, OSU’s vice president and general counsel, said Wednesday none of the five alleged victims who approached university officials wanted to contact police. In that case, Clark said, he thinks the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, would have barred university officials from turning the case over to police.
FERPA includes a number of exceptions that allow university officials to disclose protected information in certain cases, including when a threat exists.
In this case, Clark said, university officials determined Cochran’s actions didn’t constitute a threat because the alleged assaults were against men he knew, not strangers.
FERPA also includes a provision that states that the act doesn’t prevent universities from notifying police about possible crimes. But Clark said that university officials still couldn’t release names of victims without their consent.
University officials would have been allowed to disclose Cochran’s name and information to police after the conduct hearings had concluded, but Clark said he didn’t think that information, without any information about victims, would have been helpful.
“What would the police be able to do with that information?” Clark said. “Nothing, as far as I can tell.”
Stillwater police Capt. Randy Dickerson said he was “stunned” when he read Clark’s comments. He 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.
“They made the decision not to notify police, which is their call to make, however to attempt to justify this by saying this man is not a threat to other students is quite honestly, a huge misunderstanding of this case.”
Dickerson said police have been in contact with “numerous” alleged victims in the case. Not all of the alleged victims have been willing to file a police report, he said, but about five have cooperated with police. Police think there are more victims who aren’t willing to discuss their cases, Dickerson said.
Dickerson said he also takes issue with Clark’s contention that police couldn’t have used information about Cochran’s identity without information about victims. Although it’s difficult to say what information may have been helpful at the time, Dickerson said police opened their investigation after speaking only with a student newspaper reporter and fraternity members. Cochran was a member of the FarmHouse fraternity.
After police launched the investigation, several men quickly came forward to tell police they’d been sexually assaulted.
“Obviously, Mr. Clark and I have a difference of opinion on some aspects of this investigation,” Dickerson said.
On campus Thursday, OSU senior Robert Jones, 21, said he’s concerned about the sexual assault reports. He heard about the incidents Dec. 7 through word-of-mouth, he said.
A member of Pi Kappa Alpha, Jones said he initially thought the accusations were intended to slander a fraternity member but quickly realized how serious the situation was as the case developed.
Jones said he has concerns about the way OSU had handled the situation up to this point. In particular, he said, he found it troubling that officials hadn’t contacted the police. He compared the incident to the sex abuse scandal at Penn State, in which several high-level school officials were charged with perjury or fired for failing to notify police about the incidents.
“I really feel like that’s exactly what Oklahoma State did,” he said.