Education department rules UVA former policy incorrectly interpreted FERPA

VIRGINIA — The Department of Education found that a formerpolicy at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., incorrectlyinterpreted the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and violatedthe Clery Act by requiring student victims of sexual assault to abide byconfidentiality agreements.

The campus security group Security on Campus filed a complaint with theDepartment of Education in 2004 on behalf of Annie Hylton, a former UVA student.Hylton had been sexually assaulted and brought her case to the Sexual AssaultBoard, a division of the school’s Judiciary Committee. She was told thatshe would have to agree to a confidentiality agreement in order to find out theresults of the case. The university believed that allowing students to discloseinformation about the case would violate student privacy rights under FERPA, andstudents who spoke about their experiences were told they could be brought up onmisconduct charges before the Judiciary Committee.

After four years, the Department of Education decided in a Nov. 3 letterruling that sexual assault victims who talked about their cases were notviolating FERPA, and in a letter to S. Daniel Carter, director of public policyfor Security on Campus, stated that the confidentiality policy itself was”inconsistent with letter and spirit of the CleryAct and the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act.”

Carter said that Hylton had heard about a similar complaint Security onCampus made against Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where theDepartment of Education ruled in 2004 that the university’s policy ofhaving victims sign a confidentiality agreement violated the Clery Act.

Carter said in an e-mail that the case at UVA was important because itwould affect more colleges than the Georgetown decision because “the UVAapproach involving verbal agreements and the threat of punishment after the factis far more common” than Georgetown’s written agreements.

The Department of Education noted that UVA had already taken steps towardbringing its sexual assault policies in line with federal statute, but that itwould be required to review its policies and show the Department that moves havebeen made to bring the school into compliance.

Carter said that the Department’s ruling will benefit victims ofsexual assault.

“We are pleased that sexual assault victims will now have the freedomto share details about the results in their cases as they feel they need to as apart of their own healing process or if they want to raise issues about howtheir cases were handled,” he said.

Carol Wood, assistant vice president for public affairs at UVA, said thatthe Department of Education’s letter was under review by the university. She emphasized that the university’s policies had changed substantiallysince the complaint was filed and that many of the policies in question havebeen revised or updated.

“The safety of all our students is a primary concern and President[John T.] Casteen talks often and vigorously — to parents and to currentstudents — about the need for zero tolerance when it comes to sexualassault,” she said.