Oklahoma State Regents to decide reporting policies after review panel on campus sexual assault
BY ZACK STOYCOFF World Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 26, 2013
2/26/13 at 7:33 AM
Read the policies and procedures review
Read the Counsel's report
STILLWATER - Oklahoma State University's governing board will consider requiring administrators to notify police of sexual assault allegations involving students after an independent review found that the university misinterpreted federal privacy laws in not reporting allegations against a student in November.
Administrators initially argued that the Federal Educational Rights Privacy Act prohibited them from telling police of five students' allegations against Nathan Michael Cochran, 22, who has since been charged with four counts of sexual battery.
The review's findings were released Monday in a report that calls their reasoning "misplaced" and "misguided," pointing to a provision of FERPA that explicitly allows institutions to report possible crimes. However, the report adds that administrators did not violate the act by failing to report the allegations.
An OSU-A&M Board of Regents task force charged with updating the OSU system's procedures for handling sexual misconduct will ask the regents Friday to consider a series of systemwide policies in response to the findings, including requiring administrators to report sexual assault allegations as soon as possible, regents Chairman Andy Lester said Monday.
"As I understand it, what they (OSU administrators) did was perfectly legal under FERPA, and the new policy is likewise legal under FERPA," he said. "It's really just a question of which way is the better way to go."
The review, conducted by Dallas higher education attorney James Sears Bryant at the request of the regents, found that OSU could have notified police immediately after Cochran's first accuser came forward Nov. 12, but was not required to do so.
The university opted to handle the investigation internally after the accusers declined administrators' advice to take the allegations to police, the report says.
Cochran was suspended for three years after conduct review panels ruled Nov. 30 that four of the five accusers' claims were valid, but the Stillwater police investigation that led to his charges did not begin until a reporter with the Daily O'Collegian, the university's student newspaper, asked about the allegations Dec. 6.
Bryant's report criticizes administrators for telling reporters in the following weeks that FERPA prohibited them from contacting police without the accusers' consent.
Several provisions - including one that says police can be notified of a "health or safety emergency" - could have allowed them to do so, the report says.
The report also points to a provision that "nothing in the act prohibits an educational agency or institution from contacting its law enforcement unit ... to investigate a possible violation of, or to enforce any local, state or federal law."
The university incorrectly reasoned in an internal document that this provision "does not supersede" the need to have accusers' permission to go to police, the report says.
Administrators were also wrong in arguing that FERPA forbade them from detailing the allegations until the appeals process for its internal investigation was complete, the report says. Several members of the university's legal department repeatedly argued with Department of Education officials who rebuked that rationale, it adds.
Lester said he is pleased with Bryant's findings because they helped the regents' task force develop its list of policy changes, which will be presented at the regents' next meeting.
"The Board of Regents will not tolerate illegal, immoral, or unethical conduct or actions that violate our policies," Lester said. "These policies exhibit our commitment to strengthen campus safety, to handle any misconduct swiftly and appropriately, and to provide transparency in how our institutions are governed."
At least two of the recommendations - the new reporting requirement and a proposal to hire an independent counselor for sexual assault victims - were in direct response to the findings, he said.
The counselor would help sexual assault victims deal with administrators, police and medical personnel and would report directly to the regents' chief executive officer, he said.
The task force was created last summer in response to the Penn State University sex scandal and was charged more recently with reviewing the university's handling of the allegations against Cochran. Bryant's report was part of the process.
Policies and Procedures Review Task Force recommendations
Original Print Headline: Regents consider response to privacy
- Require administrators to notify police of sexual assault allegations quickly
- Hire a counselor for sexual assault victims
- Adopt a policy that would require administrators, employees and students to have "the highest degree of ethical integrity" and use the university's crime-reporting system
- Adopt a policy prohibiting retaliation for crime-reporting
- Require for OSU system universities to adopt policies protecting minors involved with university activities and programs
- Revise 10 existing policies, including governance philosophy, legal counsel operations and student organizations
Zack Stoycoff 918-581-8486