Late last month, The Kansas City Star learned that a Missouri basketball star’s October suspension came shortly after he was accused of rape for a second time. Police investigated the allegations again Michael Dixon Jr. and he was not charged in either incident. Previously, athletic department officials said Dixon’s suspension was for violating unidentified team rules. Since the two rape allegations have become public, Missouri coach Frank Haith and Athletic Director Mike Alden have said they cannot comment on them because of FERPA. Alden again cited the federal student privacy law when asked whether he had seen the police record from the first rape accusation in January 2010.
SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte: You want to bet that, when members of the U.S. Senate were sitting around deliberating over passing a law to make “education records” confidential, one of them turned to the other and said, “Of course, by ‘education records,’ we mean ‘records of whether you raped somebody.’”
Yeah, me neither.
FERPA privacy undoubtedly does restrict colleges from revealing confidential disciplinary records pertaining to particular students, including student-athletes. But FERPA was designed in a simpler time (1974), when “disciplinary record” meant sneaking a joint in the stairwell of the dorm. Not sexual assault.
Because campus disciplinary boards increasingly are being asked to handle what society considers – everywhere but on a college campus – to be felonies, it’s debatable whether 1970s-era privacy standards are a proper fit. But until Congress acts, secrecy is the law.
Missouri probably cannot reveal the basis for disciplinary action against a particular student-athlete, or the student’s reasons for transferring schools. That much, legitimately, is covered by FERPA. (Unless, that is, a disciplinary tribunal actually found that the student committed a violent or sexual offense, which doesn’t appear to be the case here. The FERPA statute – 20 U.S.C. Sec. 1232g(b)(6)(B) – expressly says colleges can disclose such disciplinary findings.)
Police reports, however, aren’t FERPA records. When a coach or athletic director is asked “are you aware there is a police report accusing one of your players of sexual assault,” answering that question in no way violates federal law. FERPA restricts only the release of information that is gleaned from confidential “education records.”
A police report is a matter of public record. Coaches can and do comment about information appearing in police reports – for instance, if an athlete is injured in a car wreck. (Here’s an example from May in which Michigan State put out a press release describing the circumstances of a car crash in which two football players were hurt. No indication that the “FERPA cops” have closed down MSU as a result – we just checked, and their website’s still working.)
An athletic director not only can say “yes, I know there was a criminal complaint filed against one of my players,” he should say it. The public is entitled to reassurance that those running major athletic departments are being kept informed and are making reasonable efforts to stay informed. A contrary response – “Son of a gun, that’s the first I’ve heard of that!” – would indicate a lack of inquisitiveness and engagement that might best be described as “Spanier-esque.”
Acknowledging awareness of a police report in no way compromises any of the player’s confidences. Nor is that awareness the result of reviewing any confidential education records.