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Without victims reaching out, detectives struggle to build cases

Stillwater Police Report

Many cases have went under reported recently at Oklahoma State University, leaving the Stillwater police in the dark.

The Stillwater Police Department didn’t find out about a reported sexual assault until almost two months later.

The accuser filed a Title IX complaint with Oklahoma State University days after the incident but initially opted not to go to police.

It’s one of many cases where an accuser waited to report to police, leaving law enforcement without a case in the meantime.

SPD Lt. Jeff Watts said the department learned about the case only when the accuser, then an OSU student, filed a report with SPD in March. Watts, the head of SPD’s criminal investigation division, said waiting to report to police can hamper any investigation through lost physical and testimonial evidence.

“The delay in reporting can sometimes affect people’s memory,” Watts said. “They may not be as sharp or remember as many details if not for the delay.”

OSU received a Title IX complaint Jan. 19 that alleged a sexual assault at an off-campus house in Stillwater on Jan. 15. The Student Conduct Office held a hearing panel March 4. The panel determined both students were at fault and neither was punished, according to a student conduct case file.

The university said it followed its policy by sending an email to the OSU Police Department telling it about a reported assault, but the email didn’t provide any names or an exact location because the accuser didn’t want police involved at the time, the accuser told the O’Colly. The accuser initially thought having the reported attacker suspended from school would be enough punishment, the accuser told the O'Colly.

The policy

The 2013 Oklahoma A&M Board of Regents policy states “appropriate law enforcement officials and the Board of Regents’ Independent Advocate for victims of sexual assault shall be notified, as soon as practicable, of such allegations, including the name of the alleged perpetrator of the sexual assault.”

When a student reports a sexual assault to the Title IX office, OSUPD takes the initial report on campus. OSUPD Lt. Mark Shearer said with the 2016 case, student conduct sent a campus security authority report and OSUPD advised the student the case was in Stillwater’s jurisdiction.

“If (the victim) doesn’t contact SPD, they’re not going to have that information,” Shearer said. “If the victim says ‘I don’t want to prosecute,’ it’s kind of difficult for law enforcement to go up and ask somebody to state the facts of what happened when they told somebody they trusted they wanted to remain anonymous. It puts us in a very awkward position.”

In 2012, OSU President Burns Hargis and then-chairman of the A&M Board of Regents Andy Lester ordered a review of OSU’s handling of the Nathan Cochran case. Cochran pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual battery in 2013 after multiple male students accused him of assaulting them on and off campus, and local police and campus safety advocates criticized OSU’s initial decision to withhold Cochran’s name from police.

A task force was already reviewing policy because of findings in the Freeh Report at Pennsylvania State University about the Jerry Sandusky scandal. OSU is one of more than 200 schools the U.S. Department of Education is investigating for how they handle sexual assaults.

OSU retained attorney James Sears Bryant to review the Cochran case in 2013. Telling police about an assault “would occur simultaneously with the commencement of any Student Conduct proceedings and before the creation of student records relevant to the assault,” according to Bryant’s report.

Bryant also conducted a similar review for the University of Iowa in 2008 and represented OSU wide receiver Hart Lee Dykes during the NCAA’s 1989 recruiting investigation. He told the O’Colly telling police about a crime doesn’t violate any student privacy laws.

“If a student slugs someone at a basketball game, you can call police without violating student privacy,” Bryant said in a recent interview at his Enid office. “A crime has been committed. If someone is lurking around campus and molesting people, you can call the police but don’t tell them the victim’s name.

“Tell the victim to talk if they want, but you can tell them the perpetrator’s name. That’s a crime, not a student privacy protection.”

With the 2016 case, Bryant said he didn’t know why police wouldn’t be aware it occurred. He said the university should be able to tell police immediately.

“Nothing (in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) prevents an educational institution from contacting law enforcement for the purpose of investigating an act that violates the law,” according to Bryant’s report.

Although the university is obligated to tell police about an assault, it can give information such as the location and perpetrator only if a victim wants the case to go to police.

Nowhere to start

OSU’s Title IX coordinator, Aleigha Mariott, declined to be interviewed for this story, but OSUPD spokeswoman Carrie Hulsey-Greene said in April she didn’t know whether the university documented when it sent information to police.

Later in August, Hulsey-Greene said the Title IX office sent an email to OSUPD Chief David Altman, OSU Vice President Lee Bird and the Board of Regents legal counsel Jan. 20.

“Per our Title IX checklist, I am informing you a female student reported to Student Conduct she was assaulted off campus on Friday, January 15,” Mariott wrote in the email. “We are working on identifying the alleged individual’s full name. The individuals were acquaintances.”

If an accuser chooses not to go to police or file a report, student conduct can’t give the accuser’s name to the police without violating the accuser’s privacy rights, Hulsey-Greene said. Having only an alleged assailant’s name doesn’t do much good, she said. In theory it lets investigators identify a common assailant or connect an assault to another case, but without the accuser’s cooperation, there isn’t enough information to do a police investigation, Hulsey-Greene said.  

“If you have someone who’s named as a suspect in a rape, and you don’t have a victim, you don’t have a case,” Hulsey-Greene said.