Emails show OSU officials' image concerns following assault allegations - : OSU

Emails show OSU officials' image concerns following assault allegations

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Posted: Wednesday, December 26, 2012 6:40 pm

Amid controversy over how they handled a sexual assault investigation involving a former student, members of the OSU/A&M Board of Regents and other university officials exchanged many emails about the damage that media coverage of the incident was doing to OSU's image, records show.

On Nov. 30, the Oklahoma State University Office of Student Conduct found Nathan Cochran, 22, responsible for four sexual misconduct violations of the OSU student code of conduct. Cochran was suspended from the university from Dec. 14 until Jan. 1, 2016 and was ordered to have no contact with any of the students who came forward against him, according to a statement released by the university Dec. 11. During the student conduct investigation, five male students came forward with allegations against him. He was arrested Dec. 12 on three sexual battery charges and posted a $100,000 bond the next day following his initial appearance in Payne County District Court.

In emails obtained by The Daily O’Collegian via an open records request filed Dec. 7, university administrators shared links daily about media reports of the assaults and tweets about the university in relation to the reports. The emails show officials sometimes disagreed about how to best repair the university's standing in the eyes of the public while simultaneously distinguishing its situation from the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. With assistance from the Gooden Group public relations firm, which specializes in perception management and issue mitigation, the group and OSU President Burns Hargis sent carefully reviewed responses to reporters from The Daily O'Collegian, the Tulsa World, The Oklahoman and the Associated Press, among other media entities, records show.

Just before 6 a.m. Dec. 13, OSU provost Robert Sternberg emailed Hargis, saying "somebody ought to be called on the carpet for being so irresponsible" when publishing a brief about the situation in Inside Higher Education, an online newspaper focusing on college and university news.

"I am pretty upset about the publicity regarding what appears to be a violation of the Cleary (sic) Act and a misinterpretation of FERPA," Sternberg wrote. "It promotes the stereotype that people in Oklahoma are too stupid to understand either Cleary (sic) or FERPA."

Later that day, Hargis emailed Sternberg, OSU general counsel Gary Clark and OSU Director of Communications Gary Shutt, disputing media reports that implied the university kept the allegations a secret. Sternberg said there were "serious errors" in the brief about the incident.

"What is worse is the suggestion that we covered up the matter until someone went to the police," Hargis wrote. "That is clearly NOT what minors were reported to have been assaulted, the acts did not happen on campus preventing OSU police jurisdiction and the complainants were encouraged to go to the police and did not want to nor have their names released."

Sternberg replied to Hargis suggesting Clark email the editor of Inside Higher Education to ask for a correction.

"Someone has to correct this," he said. "It is being widely talked about. The article is really harmful to the university and we really must set the record straight I think."

Two days before, Clark said similar statements to the Board of Regents and Hargis in response to comments former Department of Education Family Policy Compliance head LeRoy Rooker gave to The Oklahoman.

"I highly suspect that Mr. Rooker is assuming that the incidents reported to student conduct occurred on campus, which is not the case," he wrote. "OSU police did not have jurisdiction of the incidents of which student conduct was aware."

Rooker told the paper that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, would not prevent university officials from asking OSUPD to begin its own investigation into the sexual assault allegations. On Dec. 12, regents member Charles Drake disparaged Rooker's comments via email, saying, "We even had the famous LeRoy Rooker chime in with his 'expert' opinion different as the university's as to FERPA."

On Dec. 11, Bernie Cieplak, a spokesman for the Family Policy Compliance Center within the U.S. Department of Education, sent a fax to Clark, which gives details on when to release the final results of disciplinary proceedings under FERPA.

"We define 'final results' to mean a decision or determination made by an honor court or council...or other entity authorized to resolve disciplinary matters within the institution," the fax said. "We believe that this definition will benefit students who have been victims of violent crimes...Institutions will not be able to claim that FERPA allows them to release results of disciplinary proceedings only after all internal appeals or reviews have been exhausted."

Also that day, The Oklahoman asked Shutt about why OSU did not immediately provide Cochran's identity to campus and local law enforcement officers. The paper cited a provision of FERPA, which states universities are not prohibited from asking campus law enforcement to investigate possible crimes. OSU has repeatedly cited FERPA as its defense.

"I don't think we couldn't contact the police but the issue was that in the absence of victim consent there wasn't anything to tell police," OSU attorney Doug Price wrote to Shutt and Clark Dec. 12.

Clark then asked Price and Shutt whether OSU could have shared Cochran's name prior to the student conduct board's decision becoming final.

"Does (FERPA) allow information to be shared with OSUPD if none of the incidents that student conduct knew about occurred on campus?" he said. "We need to get this exactly right to put an end to the day to day stories."

Another source of controversy in the case comes from the student conduct board's decision not to make Cochran's suspension effective until the end of the fall 2012 semester. On Dec. 13, university registrar employee Celeste Campbell emailed Shutt about Cochran's enrollment status.

"I anticipate that our office may receive inquiries from the media about the enrollment status of Nathan Cochran," she wrote. "Enrollment/attendance information is directory information that could be released. Given the sensitivity of the information, do you recommend that we refer all inquiries to you?"

Campbell also said the registrar's office had not at that time received a notice of Cochran's suspension from the student conduct office, despite media reports of his imminent suspension from OSU.

The next day, OSU assistant university counsel Mackenzie Wilfong, a former U.S. Department of Education employee, sent Clark a memorandum stating two reported assaults occurred on OSU property, despite Hargis' and Clark's assertions that OSUPD did not have jurisdiction to handle any of the student conduct cases. Also, Cochran is charged with sexual battery of a student in Wentz Hall--located on campus--on Aug. 15.

In the memorandum, assistant student conduct coordinator Aleigha Mariott told Wilfong three complainants came to the student conduct office to file complaints against Cochran Nov. 28, which were additional to two reports made earlier that month. "Complainant three", as the memorandum states, said the sexual misconduct took place in May 2011 at Booker-Stinchcomb hall, located on campus. "Complainant four" said he was reportedly assaulted on July 29 at Camp Redlands, which is located at Lake Carl Blackwell and is the site of Camp Cowboy, a program allowing incoming freshmen to interact with each other before their first semester. Lake Carl Blackwell is part of OSUPD's jurisdiction, according to the OSU policies and procedures manual, and Cochran was a Camp Cowboy counselor at the time of the alleged assault. The other three alleged encounters occurred in Stillwater but off-campus, according to the memorandum.

The complainants did not initially express any interest in notifying police about the incidents, Mariott said. However, she provided them all with Stillwater police Sgt. Jeff Watts' contact information on Dec. 7 and reported that she felt complainants one and four were "receptive" to it.

Mariott said she did not view any of the five student complainants as a safety emergency because of the time elapsed between each assault and the respective report, the students' familiarity with Cochran and the students' statements saying they were not concerned for their safety. 372 days, 22 days, 577 days, 122 days and 25 days passed between each reported assault and its report to student conduct, Mariott said.

Also in the memorandum, Mariott told Wilfong that a sixth alleged victim came forward to student conduct on Dec. 6 with complaints against Cochran. The student said he wanted "a warrant out for (Cochran's) arrest", and Mariott said she offered to go with the student to the police. However, later that day the complainant said he would not yet go to police because he wanted to go with a group of other alleged victims. As of Wednesday, the sixth complainant has not filed a complaint with student conduct, according to the memorandum.

In other emails, university officials and Hargis mentioned the Penn State scandal and its involvement of underage victims. Hargis read and questioned a response Shutt sent to a reporter from the Associated Press on Dec. 14, which said no minors were involved in the investigation.

"Why does it matter that no minors were involved?" Hargis wrote.

"If there had been minors we would have immediately notified DHS or police, or we should have," Shutt replied. "It also helps distinguish it from Penn St(ate)."

On Wednesday, Stillwater police Capt. Randy Dickerson said at least five more men have come forward claiming to be victims of sexual assault, but they are debating whether to cooperate with further investigation against Cochran. These witnesses are in addition to the six who had previously come forward as of Dec. 14, he said. Most of the alleged victims who have approached law enforcement are not the same as those who gave reports to student conduct, Dickerson said.

As of Wednesday evening, Cochran faces three felony sexual battery charges, which each carry up to a 10-year prison sentence, court records show. He will appear in court at 10 a.m. Jan. 7, which is the first day of the spring 2013 semester.

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