OSU to review handling of sexual assault claims

December 15, 2012 - 12:33 AM
Oklahoma State Sex Assaults

In this photo provided by the Payne County Sheriff's Department, shows Nathan Michael Cochran, Friday Dec. 14, 2012. Payne County prosecutors have charged Cochran with three counts of sexual battery. Cochran has pleaded not guilty. (AP Photo/Payne County Sheriff's Department)

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — The head of Oklahoma State University's governing board said Friday that the school will review its handling of claims made last month by at least four male students who said another male student sexually assaulted them.

Andy Lester's promise of a full review of OSU's actions comes amid worries that the school erred by not taking the matter to the authorities and instead trying to deal with the matter internally.

School officials said they encouraged the alleged victims to go to police, but that they, themselves, didn't do so because they feared it might violate a federal law protecting student privacy. Lester, chairman of the Board of Regents for the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical Colleges, said Friday there may have been "unique circumstances" with those cases where students "needed assurance of a private setting for them to step forward."

The complaints surfaced between Nov. 9 and Nov. 28, but they cover alleged assaults that go back more than a year.

Nathan Cochran, a 22-year-old former member of the FarmHouse fraternity, was charged Wednesday by Payne County prosecutors with three counts of sexual battery. Stillwater police have spoken with several of Cochran's alleged victims and suggested this week there could be more than a dozen additional cases. The fraternity kicked Cochran out on Nov. 7.

Terry Graham, a FarmHouse alum and president of the OSU chapter's corporate board, said he met again with members of the fraternity earlier this week and encouraged anyone who thinks they may have been victimized to come forward.

"I told them if anyone else thinks they were a victim, you need to come forward now," he said. "No one has come forward."

Graphic affidavits filed in support of the charges describe how Cochran allegedly waited until his victims were asleep before molesting or attempting to molest them. Cochran turned himself into authorities late Wednesday and is free on $100,000 bond. He is due in court Wednesday. A message left with Cochran's attorney seeking comment was unanswered Friday.

The school has come under fire for deciding to handle the complaints against Cochran through disciplinary boards and not through involving law enforcement. The conduct boards ultimately decided to suspend Cochran from school for three years.

Stillwater police began an investigation of Cochran only after the student newspaper, The Daily O'Collegian, called seeking information about the allegations on Dec. 6.

On Thursday, OSU President Burns Hargis called for a task force to review the university's handling of the assault allegations.

"This examination must clearly determine whether we need to reconsider, rethink and possibly revise our policies and practices," Hargis said Friday. "We aspire to treat students with the utmost care and fairness.  Our policies, procedures and practices must be sensitive and respectful to the concerns of the students involved. 

"We respect the fact there remain questions, even nationally, relative to the correct interpretation of federal law requiring universities to establish an internal process and procedure to handle such allegations," he said.

Student body president Flint Holbrook, a senior from South Carolina, acknowledged that many students are second guessing the actions taken by school administrators, who had said they were concerned about student privacy under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

"There tends to be a general disappointment that police weren't notified, even though the university and Student Conduct (Education and Administration) went to the appropriate measures to give the alleged victims all the information on how to contact the police and who to contact," Holbrook said.

Michael Masinter, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said the school had two options under the privacy act that would've allowed it to report sexual assault claims: it could have gone to campus police directly or bypassed campus police and gone directly to the student body or to another law enforcement agency if it believed there was a safety emergency on campus.

"The first thing is that FERPA does not ever bar the university from reporting or contacting its local campus police for the purpose of investigating a potential violation of law," he said. "It doesn't bar them from contacting their local (authorities) to maintain the safety of the campus community."

Joey Senat, an Oklahoma State journalism professor and media law and First Amendment expert, said conduct review boards are not equipped to handle serious crimes.

"They're not qualified to investigate crimes, much less sexual assault investigations," Senat said. "You've got unqualified people meeting in secret over some serious crimes."

Lester, the Regents chairman, said Friday he wants the universities that fall under its governance to have "model policies, practices and procedures" for dealing with sexual misconduct.

"I hope one result of our work is to communicate we intend to provide an environment where students and staff are not afraid or hesitant to report violations, and violators will be held responsible," Lester said.

___

Associated Press writer Sean Murphy contributed to this article from Oklahoma City.