Colleges continue to mishandle sexual assault cases

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Years have passed since the debate over sexual assault reports at colleges was initially pushed to the national stage. However, the conversation about handling sexual assault allegations on campuses has continued at universities across the country. An ongoing lawsuit between the University of Oregon and an unidentified student who claims to have been raped embodies the unhealthy perception of sexual violence and assault that is still present at institutions.

In March 2014, the student reported that three men’s basketball players gang raped her in a restroom on campus. The following litigation proves that the school has cultivated a culture of silence and shame surrounding sexual assault in numerous ways, from the initial handling of the report to its current defense in the lawsuit.

The university did not respond until May, when, according to CNN, it finally took action and suspended the accused players for 4-10 years each. The delay in addressing the survivor’s report signifies a violation of Title IX, which states that all incidents of gender discrimination, including sexual violence, should be subjected to a swift investigation.

The effectiveness of the school’s investigation and resulting punishment of the players should also be called into question. While the perpetrators were found responsible for the incident, no court case was filed against them. The penalized students faced no legal action despite confirmed rape allegations, which suggests that the University of Oregon administration wanted to wash its hands of the incident following the players’ lukewarm penalty.

It has since been discovered that Men’s Basketball Head Coach Dana Altman knew that one of the perpetrators transferred to the University of Oregon to continue his athletic career after he was indefinitely suspended from the basketball team at Providence College over separate gang rape allegations. This knowledge suggests that key figures on campus in both administrative and athletic departments value the success of the school’s basketball team over students’ fundamental rights to safety.

Unsettled by the lack of legal action in response to her allegations, the survivor filed a civil lawsuit against the university and Altman in January. She is justified in her dissatisfaction with the university’s handling of a high-profile sexual assault case because of Title IX violations and undoubtedly criminal implications that were ignored by administrators.

The university not only failed to address the allegations in a fair and timely manner, as required by Title IX, but it also exploited a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) loophole in an attempt to discredit the suing survivor.

A section within FERPA’s Code of Federal Regulations states that an educational institution can disclose personal information if “the disclosure is to other school officials, including teachers, within the agency or institution whom the agency or institution has determined to have legitimate educational interests.” This policy refers to FERPA’s allowing for schools to legally access records filed at university health clinics if they could contribute to a legal defense.

The University of Oregon’s means of defense in this suit further demonstrates its disregard for students’ safety and the cultivation of an assault culture. Its use of the FERPA loophole to defend itself against the survivor highlights the school’s improper handling of sexual assaults on campus. In preparing its legal defense against the survivor, the university accessed her medical records previously filed at the student health center.

The obtained records in this case specifically pertain to a medical claim filed while the survivor received therapy through the counseling center. The students’ records are unrelated to the litigation she has launched against the school, yet were still delivered to a university attorney. Her claim of emotional distress, made under guaranteed confidentiality, will now be publicized in the ongoing lawsuit.

Though the school’s actions are protected by the FERPA exception, the policy itself is unethical and damaging. Not only does the exception violate the confidentiality students are promised in receiving medical care, but it also instills fear in survivors who seek to report instances of violence.

Actions taken by the university contribute to widespread stigmatization of mental illness. In obtaining the survivor’s claim of emotional distress as means for legal defense, the school suggests that her psychological state discredits the rape allegations made more than a year ago.

The policy exception that allowed for the student’s personal information to be accessed reflects an issue reaching beyond the University of Oregon. Seeing that colleges nationwide operate under FERPA, similar situations could exist at many of them. According to Emmons Senior Director Sara Semal, California privacy law supersedes FERPA and protects the privacy of college students within the state. However, hundreds of universities elsewhere promise confidential medical care through their health clinics while failing to educate students on situations in which their privacy could be compromised.

FERPA should eliminate this exception in order to improve the conditions for reporting instances of sexual violence at universities nationwide. Even the Department of Education called for a policy reevaluation in light of the University of Oregon’s actions. It released a statement rightfully urging universities to “respect the expectation of confidentiality that all Americans hold when talking to a counselor or therapist.”

In seeking counseling at university health clinics, students should feel that their schools have their best interests in mind. In reporting instances of sexual violence, the same expectation should be in place. But as the University of Oregon has proven in its current legal battle, there are institutions that do not value an open, unassuming dialogue on assault. Though Occidental has made significant progress in encouraging such dialogue on its own campus, the national climate surrounding sexual assault at educational institutions requires vast improvement.