Emails show OSU officials fretted over coverage

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By SEAN MURPHY, Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma State University officials fretted about the school's public image as details emerged about the sexual assaults of several male students on campus, and maintained throughout that it was appropriate to withhold details of the attacks from police, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.

Even after an official from the U.S. Department of Education suggested the university had misinterpreted a portion of the Family and Education Rights Privacy Act, or FERPA, an OSU attorney insisted the federal law prevented them from disclosing details of an internal investigation to police.

"OSU did not have consent from the respondents or the complainants to reveal their student discipline records, which are educational records, to (campus police)," OSU assistant university counsel Mackenzie Wilfong wrote in a legal memo to the university's top lawyer after Stillwater police had already launched a criminal investigation into the alleged assaults.

"And (campus police) did not fit into one of the exceptions, therefore as has been the practice of student conduct, this information was not disclosed, pursuant to FERPA," Wilfong added.

The memo was among dozens of documents and emails obtained by the AP in response to an open records request submitted to the university on Dec. 14.

Nathan Cochran, a 22-year-old former member of the FarmHouse fraternity, has been charged in Payne County District Court with three counts of sexual battery, and Stillwater police have suggested there could be as many as a dozen additional cases. Cochran has pleaded not guilty and been released on $100,000 bond.

Cochran's attorney, Jay Husbands, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Thursday. A preliminary hearing in the case is set for Jan. 7.

Oklahoma State has faced criticism for handling the complaints against Cochran through a university disciplinary board and not notifying local or university police after learning about the alleged assaults. In response, OSU President Burns Hargis has called for an investigation into the university's handling of the matter.

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, nearly a month after the first alleged victim provided a written complaint to the university's office of student conduct, records show.

OSU's General Counsel Gary Clark acknowledged in a Dec. 12 email to OSU spokesman Gary Shutt that university officials could have notified the police.

"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 the police," Clark wrote.

In another email to Hargis on Dec. 13, Robert Sternberg, OSU's provost and senior vice president, wrote that he was frustrated with media accounts of what appeared to be a misinterpretation of FERPA and a violation of the Clery Act, a federal law that requires reporting of certain crimes on campus.

"It promotes the stereotype that people in Oklahoma are too stupid to understand either Cleary (sic) or FERPA," Sternberg wrote to Hargis. "Somebody ought to be called on the carpet for being so irresponsible."

Hargis responded that Clark, along with OSU attorneys Wilfong and Doug Price, made the determination that they were complying with FERPA. "Hardly a stupid group," Hargis wrote. "I'll have Gary (Clark) brief you."

Hargis also bristled at the suggestion in one online publication that OSU officials covered up the matter until after reporters notified police.

"That is clearly not what happened," Hargis wrote in a Dec. 13 email to Sternberg. "I think the editor should understand that no minors were reported to have been molested, 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."

And in an email exchange between attorneys Clark and Wilfong on Dec. 12 over which provisions of FERPA took precedence, Clark expressed concern about the growing number of media reports about the situation.

"Could we have shared the name of the alleged responsible party prior to the final results of the determination (by the Student Conduct Education and Administration) of responsibility?" Clark wrote. "We need to get this exactly right to put an end to the day to day stories."

In another email to OSU spokesman Shutt, the director of communications for the OSU Alumni Association, Chase Carter, expresses concern that an advertisement for OSU appears on a newspaper's website next to a story about the ongoing sexual assault investigation.

"The OSU rape case is the headline story, and then a pop up to apply to OSU appeared right next to it," Carter wrote. "Might not be a bad idea to suspend at least the online advertising on the site until we get passed (sic) this."

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Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy .

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