Utah State University admits that its "policies and processes" for handling reports of sexual violence "fell short" as it received information about Torrey Green, a former football player charged in five attacks allegedly committed while he was attending the school.
But arguing before the state Records Committee on Thursday, USU general counsel Mica McKinney said any emails between school employees about Green — sought by The Salt Lake Tribune — would be protected by student privacy safeguards in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
In a 4-2 vote, the committee determined FERPA would govern such emails and it did not have the authority to order their release. While McKinney asserted that the law prevents the release of any of the requested correspondence, committee members urged the school to disclose any information it believes it can legally provide.
The school has conducted an inquiry into how it handled information it received about Green related to sexual assault allegations, McKinney said, and as a result, has publicly shared recommendations on how to improve policies.
It has not released its inquiry. In a document filed with the records committee, it acknowledged but did not explain lapses in handling information about Green.
Tribune reporter Alex Stuckey requested emails mentioning Green in May after talking with three current and former USU students who said they reported allegations against Green to the school.
McKinney said releasing the emails would have disclosed the former student-athlete's academic status, class schedule and medical information, all protected by FERPA.
Stuckey argued during the hearing that The Tribune was not interested in academic information and would be "happy to accept the records with redactions."
The goal of the request, she said, was to see whether and how USU was communicating about allegations against Green and the environment his continued presence on campus created for his alleged victims — some of whom have said they ended up dropping out because of their assaults.
When committee members asked whether the school could release any emails specifically related to allegations of sexual violence against Green or any resulting investigations or discipline, McKinney said "there aren't responsive records" for that request. She also argued that if such records existed, they would be FERPA-protected.
McKinney said the university is also concerned that releasing these records may be viewed as a deterrent for sexual assault victims nervous about reporting.
Public interest in this case outweighs the federal mandate for student privacy, Stuckey countered. She presented a statement from one of the alleged victims, who wrote that "it is imperative we know how the school responded to the knowledge of the incidents."
The emails, Stuckey said, would help explain what happened after the women came forward to the school.
"And even if they don't say anything, in that, we can then say that they didn't communicate about these allegations in the emails," Stuckey said.
The school talked to Green about one allegation, he told Stuckey in a July interview, though he did not specify which.
"Obviously I wish that we had been able to get the emails with redactions," she said after the ruling, "but I guess one good nugget of information that came out of it is that [USU] didn't have any emails related to any of the allegations."
The two dissenting committee members, Holly Richardson and Tom Haraldsen, said they were not convinced that the requested information was protected by FERPA.
Additionally, Richardson noted that universities are required by the Clery Act to disclose a "timely warning of crimes that represent a continuing threat to the campus community," to immediately investigate allegations of sexual assault and to take action to make the environment safe again. The university hasn't done those things in a timely fashion, she said.
Further, she argued, the release of records would be encouraging for victims because it would show that the university takes its responsibility to them seriously.
USU spokesman Tim Vitale said the university follows policy on and is supportive of the Clery Act. USU is "pleased" with the outcome of the hearing, he said, and committed to protecting privacy for all student records.
"We were glad to have prevailed there," he said. "Now we will move on to what we've been doing, which is continuing to address this issue of sexual assault on campus."
Stuckey said Vitale has told her there is no "written report" documenting the school's inquiry and the school has denied her request for information related to it. The Tribune filed an appeal to USU for those records Thursday after the hearing.