FERPA, sexual assault and college campuses

25 April 2011

I was happy last week to see an update on a FERPA case that’s been unfolding for several years:

The University of Maryland has finally released the names of students it has found guilty of sexual assault in the past 10 years. It was reluctant to do so, citing the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, but said it would do so after state Attorney General Doug Gansler rejected that argument last year.

Three years after journalism students first made their request, the public finally knows: Only four students have been found guilty. Four. In 10 years. According to the school’s Clery statistics for 2007-09 (the only three years I could easily find on the school’s website), 21, 17 and 10 forcible sex offenses were reported each year, respectively. With 48 reported sex offenses in three years, it’s hard to imagine that in 10 years only four students have been found guilty.

Of those four:

only one of the students found guilty was expelled, and the other three were suspended for a year and forced to meet certain requirements, such as staying away from the victim and writing reflective essays. (The Diamondback)

It’s easy of course to see why the university tried to hide behind FERPA, a law that was intended to to protect the privacy of student education records. The number of students found guilty of sexual assault seems unbelievably low compared with the number reported to the school. It calls into question how seriously the university investigates students accused of sexual assault, as well as how seriously it punishes those they find guilty.

University of Maryland students should be asking their administrators some very tough questions right now, and hopefully they will make it clear that the University has a responsibility to investigate sexual assaults on campus and punish those found guilty. Reports of on-campus sexual assaults should be as publicly available as those detailing similar crimes occurring off-campus.

As bleak as the numbers are, at least they are public now. That’s the good news. The bad news, of course, is that many, many campuses have disclosure policies similar to how Maryland’s was prior to Gansler’s directive. At UNC, my past requests for names of students found guilty by the Honor Court of sexual assault were denied because of FERPA (despite UNC’s FERPA training for professors that says this information will be released upon request). To this I echo the recent words of North Carolina state judge Howard Manning: “FERPA does not provide a student with an invisible cloak so that the student can remain hidden from public view.”

Reports of sexual assaults on campus are not educational records, and we shouldn’t tolerate it when universities insist they are. If we truly want to address sexual assault on college campuses — a topic of much recent discussion given the Title IX complaint filed against Yale and Saturday’s Wall Street Journal column that argued in favor of shutting down all fraternities — we need to start with detailed reporting about how universities address reports of assault.

That kind of reporting is only possible if universities are forced to be open instead of allowed to hide behind FERPA. So, a plea: We only know about the situation at the University of Maryland because student journalists kept pressuring the University, fighting it all the way up to the state attorney general’s office. Journalists, and particularly campus publications, have a watchdog responsibility to fight back when universities refuse to release information on sexual assaults because of FERPA, and they should give ’em hell until every college is open with how they deal with assaults.

Updated to add information about UNC-Chapel Hill’s stated policy on disclosing the names of individuals found guilty of sexual assault through the campus Honor Court. Thanks Kevin Schwartz and Erica Perel for pointing that out.