STILLWATER — The response by officials at Oklahoma State University to a series of sexual assault reports on campus was “misguided,” according to a report from OSU's governing board.
A special counsel's report from the Board of Regents for Oklahoma State University and the A&M Colleges concludes OSU officials misinterpreted the Federal Education Rights Privacy Act in their handling of the case. University officials have claimed the act barred them from calling police after they learned of allegations of sexual assaults.
The report, which was released Monday, concludes the act wouldn't have prevented officials from calling the police immediately after learning about the allegations. However, OSU officials also did not break any law or internal policy by not calling police, according to the report.
In a statement, OSU President Burns Hargis said he appreciated the work of the Board of Regents and the task force that created the report.
“We look forward to quickly implementing policy recommendations that the board approves,” Hargis said. “This administration is fully supportive of any changes and enhancements that will make our campus safer.”
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 concerns about the act, commonly known as FERPA.
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.
The Board of Regents announced in December a task force would review the university's handling of the case at the request of Hargis.
That task force was created last year to review institutional policies in response to the sex abuse scandal at Penn State University.
Friday's report cites a provision in FERPA that allows institutions to contact campus police to ask them to investigate possible crimes on campus. The report notes that members of the news media brought the provision to university officials' attention.
According to the report, OSU officials rejected that argument, saying a different provision in FERPA wouldn't have allowed them to turn over educational records, including those generated in student conduct hearings.
But that provision wouldn't have applied in this case, according to the report. When officials learned of the incidents, no student conduct hearings were pending, meaning no such records had been created.
“OSU could have notified the police immediately after it became aware that the sexual assaults had been committed,” the report states.
Although OSU officials misinterpreted the act, James Sears Bryant, the Board of Regents' independent counsel, said he thought they did so in good faith. Student privacy is a difficult area of law, he said, and applying the facts of any case to it can present challenges.
“What makes all law difficult is when you apply facts to it,” he said.
“Like other areas of law, there's a lot of room for interpretation.”
The report recommends the board of regents hire an independent advocate to work with sexual assault victims at all campuses in the system.
That person would make sure victims are aware of their rights and help 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, Bryant said. The advocate's duty would be to the victim, not to the institution, he said.
The report also recommends the board adopt a policy requiring officials at all colleges and universities in the system to notify police when they learn of a sexual assault on campus, on campus-owned property or against a student.
University officials wouldn't be required to identify victims without their consent.
In a separate report, the task force also laid out proposed policy changes that came about during the initial review that followed the Penn State scandal. Among those changes is a requirement that all campuses in the system adopt policies to protect minors who are involved with activities the institution sponsors.
The board is scheduled to vote on the recommendations from both reports at a meeting at 10 a.m. Friday at OSU's Student Union.