(AP) An independent review of the University of Virginia’s handling of a student’s gang rape allegations, graphically depicted in Rolling Stone magazine and later retracted, will not be publicly released because of student privacy concerns.
In an email from the school’s Freedom of Information Act officer late last month, U.Va. rejected a request from The Associated Press to publicly release an executive summary of the review. The Charlottesville university declined a request for additional comment Tuesday.
In its denial, the university cited the explanation a U.S. Department of Education official gave in July to Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring.
“We recognize the commonwealth of Virginia’s strong interest in transparency regarding the university’s policies and practices related to sexual assault on campus and showing that the university is not ‘indifferent’ to allegations of sexual assaults,” Dale King, director of the department’s Family Policy Compliance Office, wrote in a letter to Herring.
King stressed, however, that the department also has a “strong interest” in the privacy of students and ensuring that they are not discouraged from reporting incidents of “sex-based harassment” because of fears their identities will be revealed.
King cited the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, which provides broad privacy protections for students at institutions that receive Department of Education funding.
U.Va., which is being investigated by the Department of Education for not following Title IX in how it handles sexual assault investigations, cited the privacy act and attorney-client privilege in refusing to release the report. The review was conducted at a cost of more than $544,000, according to records supplied to the AP by U.Va.
Campus safety experts said officials had to balance competing interests when considering whether to release the report: setting the record straight on the university’s handling of the case and shielding the student. The Rolling Stone piece portrayed U.Va. as being more concerned about its public image than the report of a sexual assault.
“The university has a compelling interest in correcting a widely reported story, subsequently retracted, that painted a picture that itself could have a chilling effect on other students making reports of sexual assault,” S. Daniel Carter, director of 32 National Campus Safety Initiative, wrote in an email to the AP.
The nonprofit group, which grew out of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre that left 32 dead, assists colleges and universities on safety issues.
Carter reviewed the Department of Education letter to Herring at the request of the AP. He said the case is “perhaps the most significant conflict of these two issues I’ve ever seen.”
Liz Seccuro, who has written about her sexual assault at U.Va. in 1984 and now is a prominent advocate for awareness on the issue, said she would like to see the report released in the interest of transparency, provided the student’s privacy is protected.
“I advocate for its release because it’s good for everybody,” she said. “Absolutely, it serves the greater good.”
Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the Department of Education typically has applied the federal privacy act too broadly. He said there is no reason the report couldn’t be released with the student’s name redacted.
The Rolling Stone piece identified the student in the report as “Jackie.”
“The narrative of what Jackie said and did has already been out in the national news media and 99.9 percent of America has no idea who Jackie is,” LoMonte said.
The review, done at the behest of U.Va.’s governing board, was conducted by a team of attorneys from O’Melveny & Myers that included a former U.S. solicitor general, Walter Dellinger. In November, Herring said the review was intended to examine the university’s handling of the gang rape depicted in Rolling Stone.
The Rolling Stone piece was deemed a “journalistic failure” in April in a damning report by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. But when the story was published, it roiled the grounds of the university founded by Thomas Jefferson.
It horrified leaders at the elite public university, sparked protests at a fraternity where the woman said she was violently raped by seven men and sparked a new round of national discussions about sexual assault on U.S. campuses.
The lengthy article focused on “Jackie” as an example of what the magazine called a culture of sexual violence at U.Va.
An investigation by the Charlottesville Police Department said it had found no evidence to back the claims of the victim.
Since then, two lawsuits have been filed against the magazine: one by the top administrator handling student complaints of sexual assault; the other by the fraternity where Jackie said the violent assault took place.
U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said the magazine article harmed efforts to fight sexual violence and tarred the school’s reputation.
In an opinion, O’Melveny & Myers said releasing the executive summary would not violate the student’s privacy rights because of the “extensive self-disclosure by the student.”
The department, however, was not swayed.
“While we understand that the university is facing extensive media scrutiny on an issue that implicates its core legal obligations to its student body, we are concerned about the ramifications to student privacy that would result from the extension of implied waiver,” King wrote.
— STEVE SZKOTAK, Associated Press