Outcry on Overheard: Title IX should protect the innocent, not shield the guilty

Credit: Qingyi Dong/ Credit: Qingyi Dong/ Credit: Holly Liu / Credit: Holly Liu /
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Last week, outcry broke out on Overheard at Carnegie Mellon when a Medium post by a Carnegie Mellon graduate was shared, titled “Empowering my Rapist and Revictimizing Me." While controversy brewed about the authenticity of the events described in the article, it created a surge in attention on the matter and caused people to raise a number of questions about the transparency of sexual assault cases at Carnegie Mellon and college campuses in general.

Based on the email sent out by Vice President of Student Affairs Gina Casalegno in response to the Overheard at Carnegie Mellon post, it is clear that the university does not take these matters lightly and understands the importance of providing educational and support programs to ensure that sexual assault is prevented and handled properly. As a witness in a stalking case, it was clear that the people I worked with in the university cared greatly about handling such cases in a proper manner and bringing justice and safety to victims.

However, a national policy that works to protect the guilty more than the victim sets legal precedents that can be destructive to college campus communities and potentially endangering to students.

In the comments section of this post, one student wrote, “Why don’t students receive crime alerts when a student sexually assaults another?” The answer comes from a law created in 1974 that was not even intended to deal with sexual assault. The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was written to protect the privacy of students’ academic transcripts.

However, its vague wording has caused it to be used in far more scenarios than intended by primary author, Senator James L. Buckley. Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, even goes as far to say that its unintended interpretations from being a law meant to protect academic transcripts to one silencing rape cases have transformed it into the “Federal Rapists Protection Act.” FERPA is commonly used by universities to prevent sexual assault case results from being published and shared with members of the community against their best interests.

According to The New York Times reporter Jon Krakauer, “When universities want to deny public access to information that might blemish their reputations, they routinely claim that FERPA prevents them from disclosing such information — even when disclosure is plainly warranted. In many instances, the suppressed records concern sexual assault complaints.”

He then goes on to describe a case he was investigating of a University of Montana football player who was found guilty of rape but was then not expelled after a far-from-transparent repeal process. The University of Montana attempted to use FERPA to shield any information on the case from the reporter and was almost successful due to the flexibility of its interpretations.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, FERPA allows “the final results of any college disciplinary proceeding for a violent crime or sex offense that concludes the accused broke a school rule or policy to a third party” to be released to witnesses, student groups, and reporters. However, colleges like the University of Montana have clearly overstepped their boundaries and put their interests before their communities’ interests in their interpretations of FERPA.

In the case of the Overheard at Carnegie Mellon Medium post, the accused student was found not guilty and, therefore, had the right to privacy. This is understandable because if there is even a chance that the accusation is false, the tarnishing of this student’s reputation and future could affect him for a lifetime. According to Slate, eight percent of rape accusations are reported by police to be “unfounded,” so false accusations are a reality and should be properly handled. While people have the right to be angry about such cases, we must remember that America is a country built on the foundation of innocence until proven guilty.

In the case of a guilty verdict or a false accusation beyond a reasonable doubt, students and members of the campus community should be given the right to access such information, and cases like the University of Montana one described in The New York Times article above must cease using FERPA as a gag order to hide information that could be crucial for their students’ safety. In order to ensure that such cases do not happen, FERPA must be rewritten in a way that preserves the privacy of students but is worded in a way that prevents universities from hiding information from the public that members of the community should be entitled to know.

After reviewing Carnegie Mellon’s 2015 Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Study,it is clear that college campuses across America are facing a sexual assault epidemic. Out of those surveyed, 38.3% of undergraduate females at Carnegie Mellon University reported experiencing an attempted sexual assault. Even more frightening is the fact that 26% of them have actually experienced a completed sexual assault. According to Carnegie Mellon, this finding is no outlier and is “similar to what has been reported in the media for undergraduate women.”

Despite large numbers, “less than five percent of each type of attempted or completed sexual assault type is reported to [Carnegie Mellon].” 23.3% of unreported cases were not reported because the victim did not believe Carnegie Mellon had the authority to handle such cases, and 9.8% of cases were not reported because the person did not know how to do so. Clearly, there are places where Carnegie Mellon can work to improve, but the lack of transparency caused by FERPA is counterproductive to making students aware of the dangers present in their community and prevents things that could be productive to the community, such as the proposed sexual assault crime alert, from being materialized.

As a witness who went through the paperwork and non-disclosure agreements of a Title IX case, I can say with certainty that this is an issue of national policy. Whether with good intentions to comply with the law or bad intentions to shield their own flaws, the various interpretations of FERPA have caused universities to bar information on cases of sexual assault that are crucial to protecting the community. Why should a rape committed by a college football star be made any less public than one committed by any other rapist on the street? Cases like these should be handled with the same consequences, rigor, and transparency as ones outside of the university, and FERPA must be rewritten in a way that warrants universities to do so.