Judge orders university to turn over hazing records to local newspaper

VERMONT — The upperclassmen of the University of Vermont ice hockeyteam called it tradition.

“It’s going to be the worst, best night of your life,” reported a freshmanhockey player to state investigators, describing what a senior team membertold him regarding the “Big Night.”

On that “Big Night” in October, Corey LaTulippe was forced to walk inline like an elephant, cradling the genitals of a fellow freshman walkingdirectly ahead, according to a reportfrom the state attorney general’s office. He has since withdrawn from theuniversity and filed suit in federal court. LaTulippe, at the time a freshmantrying out for the hockey team, complained to the university about theOctober party. Team members told investigators that they were forced toeat seafood pie until they vomited and drink warm beer and liquor at theparty, among other forced activities.

The university canceled the rest of the team’s hockey season in Januaryafter campus officials discovered some players had lied during a universityinvestigation into allegations of hazing by the team.

After receiving the complaint from LaTulippe’s lawyer in October, theuniversity launched a formal investigation into the allegations. The BurlingtonFree Press heard rumors of the investigation and asked the universityfor 19 categories of documents on Nov. 11.

“We were looking for the methods the school used in its investigation,any correspondence — anything that could shed light on the incident orinvestigation,” said Mickey Hirten, executive editor of the Free Press.

But the university refused the newspaper’s request, citing exceptionsto the state open-records law, specifically student-record exemptions,criminal or disciplinary investigation exemptions and attorney-client privilegeexemptions. The Free Press took the university to Washington CountySuperior Court and asked Judge Alden T. Bryan to issue an order compellingthe school to release the documents.

By the time Bryan issued a ruling on Dec. 15, LaTulippe had filed suitagainst the university in a federal district court in Burlington for failingto intervene adequately in the hazing incidents. Bryan ordered that some,but not all, of the requested documents be released, partly due to thepublicity surrounding the case and because the complaint in federal courthad already made most of the details public.

“We were really vindicated by Bryan’s decision,” Hirten said. “The universityis a public institution, and we felt it very important that the publicbe aware, especially in matters of public safety. And hazing is certainlya matter of public safety.”

The school had argued that a federal law, the Family Educational Rightsand Privacy Act, prohibited it from releasing the documents because itconstituted a violation of students’ privacy. Bryan argued that the universitycould erase students’ names from the documents so that little informationabout the students would be revealed.

In his decision, Bryan pointed to changes to FERPA enacted by Congresslast year that allow schools to disclose the results of any campus disciplinaryproceeding involving a student found responsible for a violent crime ornonforcible sex offense. Bryan ruled that because the allegations describedin LaTulippe’s complaint suggest that if not force, then unwelcome pressureinducing sexual acts and nudity were involved, the school could not useFERPA as a defense.

The seven documents the court refused to require the school to disclosewere notes and transcripts from interviews conducted with team membersduring the school’s investigation. The court considered these documentsstudent records that could not be released without the consent of the students.Neither party appealed Bryan’s decision. At that time, the attorney general’soffice had begun its own investigation into the incident.

Once the ordeal became public, Vermont officials received severe criticismfor not reporting the hazing allegations to local law enforcement or thecampus police department. School officials gave several explanations forfailing to involve law enforcement officials earlier.

“Both FERPA and our obligation to our students guided our actions inthis situation,” said Enrique Corredera, a university spokesman. “FERPAexplicitly states that universities can’t turn over information containedin student records to external law enforcement officers, with limited exceptions.”

The university asked Attorney General William H. Sorrell’s office toinvestigate the hazing matter last December, the first referral of theaffair to any law enforcement agency. School officials told investigatorsfrom the attorney general’s office that they did not involve law enforcementearlier because they did not realize the allegations involved potentialcriminal conduct other than underage drinking. The attorney general’s officereleased its report on Feb. 3, confirming that the hazing occurred andfinding the school’s response insufficient.

“The law and the regulations promulgated [under FERPA] provide exceptionsfor referrals of alleged criminal conduct to a law enforcement agency,”the report said.

View the full text of the Vermont attorney general’s opinion athttp://www.state.vt.us/atg/UVM%20Hazing%20report.htm.