Nathan Cochran, 22, has been charged with three counts of sexual battery.
Oklahoma State University (OSU), located in the sleepy town of Stillwater, Okla., has recently become the center of a debate concerning whether student privacy or the process of the law should take precedence in a sexual assault case.
Five male students came forward to OSU’s Student Conduct Education and Administration (SCEA) office in November to file sexual misconduct complaints against fellow student Nathan Cochran, 22. The incidents were said to have happened sometime between November 2011 and August 2012.
Cochran was a junior at OSU as well as a member of FarmHouse Fraternity and a well-known student on campus.
Although Cochran didn’t attend his conduct hearing, the OSU SCEA board found him responsible for the violations and suspended him from the university for three years. Despite the findings and punishment, the student conduct board chose not to report the sexual assault allegations to the local authorities, claiming that doing so would be a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
FERPA, passed in 1974, gives college students the ability to limit disclosure of their educational records, including grades and student behavior. Universities can override FERPA if there is a health or safety emergency.
OSU Vice President Gary Clark said the school determined there was no imminent danger in the Cochran case, and therefore did not feel that involving Stillwater police was worth a potential FERPA violation, the Stillwater NewsPress reported.
The SCEA’s decision not to alert police about the potential felony case meant that a formal investigation of Cochran did not begin until the OSU student newspaper, The Daily O’Collegian, called the police department seeking information about the allegations. Before a reporter called the station, local authorities knew nothing of the case.
Although the evocative content of the Cochran case alone was enough to make national news, the backward nature in which the case unfolded garnered international attention and sparked the debate of whether the university had a moral or legal obligation to turn over Cochran to the authorities.
Stillwater Police Capt. Randy Dickerson said that the university should have recognized that five students coming forward and accusing one person of sexual assault should have met the criteria to override FERPA.
“The decision to notify law enforcement at that time was certainly available to Oklahoma State University through exceptions in FERPA,” Dickerson told the Stillwater NewsPress. “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.”
Students across the country are torn about what the university should have done in this situation. Robbie Maples, a senior at OSU and also a member of FarmHouse, said that he sides with the university’s decision to not turn over Cochran to authorities after the conduct hearing.
“Nathan was found ‘guilty’ in a forum where he wasn’t even there to defend himself,” Maples said. “Giving his name to the police would mean that they were going to think that he was guilty before he even had a chance to address what happened.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Alex McSweeney, a senior at Kennesaw State University. McSweeney said that she believes the similarities between the Cochran case and the landmark Penn State University scandal was enough for OSU to risk violating FERPA.
“OSU should have known to turn over any information that could possibly link a student to a felony immediately,” McSweeney said. “FERPA violation or not, withholding information like this makes the school look bad. Have schools learned nothing from Penn State and Joe Paterno?”
Although Cochran has since turned himself in and was charged with three counts of sexual battery, the university’s response to the situation is still being examined. Cochran has pleaded not guilty.
OSU President Burns Hargis announced Thursday the university will create a task force to investigate how the university handled the case.
“We have an obligation to clear up any ambiguity, and if warranted, amend and strengthen our policies and procedures while abiding by federal laws,” Hargis said. “We cannot and do not tolerate sexual misconduct.”
As the case unfolds, students await both the verdict of the Cochran felony case and the results of the OSU task force.
“OSU doesn’t need any more bad press,” McSweeney said. “But if the school is in the wrong, it needs to own up to its mistakes.”
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