Public may vet task force's efforts to review OSU sex assault investigation
BY ZACK STOYCOFF World Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 09, 2013
1/09/13 at 7:30 AM
STILLWATER - The task force charged with reviewing Oklahoma State University's investigation into sexual assault allegations against a student will operate behind closed doors, but its policy recommendations, if any, will be subject to "plenty of public scrutiny," the chairman of the university's governing board said Tuesday.
The 11-member group - which is examining the university's handling of five students' accusations against Nathan Micheal Cochran, 22 - will report in an open meeting to the OSU-A&M regents, who will welcome public opinions, said regents' chairman Andy Lester, who is also a member of the task force.
"Whatever is presented to the board of regents, we will vet, we'll discuss, we'll debate," he said. "The public will certainly have an opportunity to be involved in that."
The regents created the task force in July to review the OSU system's policies for handling sexual misconduct with the aim of avoiding situations such as the Penn State University sex scandal.
OSU President Burns Hargis asked the group Dec. 13 to begin the more specific review after administrators were criticized for failing to notify police when the five students reported the crimes to the OSU Office of Student Conduct in November.
Administrators have said that they encouraged the students to contact police but decided not to do so themselves out of concern for the accusers' privacy and because they believed that the Federal Educational Rights Privacy Act prohibited it.
The task force will examine how administrators interpreted FERPA and other laws, as well as the OSU system's policies, Lester said.
Recommendations might include adding, dropping or editing policies at OSU or any of the other four institutions under the regents' jurisdiction, he said.
"The real goal being to make our campuses and institutions as open, accessible and safe as they need to be," he said. "One can always learn lessons."
The task force has met in regular closed meetings since its creation and will continue to do so as it investigates this incident, he said.
The state Open Meeting Act does not require open meetings for public bodies that only make recommendations.
The group, chaired by regent Tucker Link, consists of six OSU staff and faculty members, a Connors State College administrator, an OSU police officer and the president of the OSU Student Government Association.
Lester said he initially hoped that the group would recommend policy changes by the end of January but stressed that the new assignment will likely delay that for an unknown period of time.
Any timetable will likely be determined by Dallas higher education attorney James Bryant, who was hired by the regents this month to advise the task force, Lester said.
Bryant oversaw a similar review at the University of Iowa in 2008, ruling that administrators there mishandled an investigation of rape allegations against two football players.
Lester previously said in a news release that Bryant has "an excellent reputation for his diligence, thoroughness and integrity" and will have "broad, independent latitude" in the OSU task force's review.
"What the task force needed was an outside, independent voice who can help us understand" relevant laws, Lester said. "The key words for me are 'outside' and 'independent' and 'expert.' "
Bryant said the OSU situation has similarities with his previous investigations but that it is also unique because administrators there are open to immediate policy changes.
Previous universities simply asked Bryant to determine whether they had handled an investigation correctly, he said.
According to a university document, five students told administrators between Nov. 12 and Nov. 28 that Cochran had sexually assaulted them while he was intoxicated, and two said the assaults happened on university property.
Administrators suspended Cochran for three years after discipline panels ruled Nov. 30 that four of the complaints were valid.
Cochran, a Heavener High School graduate, was secretary of OSU's Interfraternity Council and was a student director for Gundyville, a program that allows students to camp near Boone Pickens Stadium before home football games.
He was charged Dec. 12 with three counts of sexual battery in connection with a Stillwater police investigation that began after a reporter with The Daily O'Collegian, the university's student newspaper, asked officers about the allegations Dec. 6.
Police said the charges stem from two assaults that were not among those reported to administrators, and they said dozens more assaults might have occurred.
Original Print Headline: Public may vet task force's efforts to review OSU case
Zack Stoycoff 918-581-8486
Andy Lester: The OSU official says the goal is to make the campuses more safe.