Va. student loses suit to limit campus courts

VIRGINIA — A student whose case has potentially serious implications for the opening of campus court proceedings suffered a defeat in state court in May, when a district court judge ruled against her in a sexual discrimination suit against her former school.

The judge ruled that Christy Brzonkala did not provide enough evidence to show that Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) discriminated against her because of her gender.

Brzonkala’s attorney said she plans to appeal the decision. A decision in her favor might force colleges and universities to consider opening campus disciplinary proceedings and records to the public. Campus judicial hearings are currently closed to the media at most schools, and universities often use the Buckley amendment, also known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, to withhold a student’s disciplinary records.

Brzonkala sued the university after claiming the disciplinary system mishandled a sexual assault complaint she filed. She accused two university football players of sexually assaulting her in the fall of 1994. She has said guilt and shame kept her from reporting the incident until the spring of 1995, when she reported the case to university officials.

After two lengthy hearings through the university judicial system, the university lessened the punishment originally given to the football players and allowed them to play football during the next season.

Brzonkala said the university’s handling of her complaint violated federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination. As part of the suit, Brzonkala also sought an injunction that would have prohibited the university’s campus courts from handling sexual assault cases unless they first made a formal complaint with the local police.

Eileen Wagner, Brzonkala’s attorney, said the injunction would not prevent the university from hearing sexual assault cases, but it would force them to wait for the results of a local police investigation before they did.

Though Buckley, which was enacted to protect students’ “education records,” explicitly exempts campus law enforcement records, journalists and campus crime victims claim that school administrators use it to withhold crime information maintained in disciplinary records anyway.

In early June, Brzonkala testified at a hearing at the House of Representatives in support of legislation to make Buckley’s provisions more clear. (See story, this issue.) At the hearing, Brzonkala described how Virginia Tech used Buckley to make it harder for her to pursue her case against her alleged attackers.

She ended her testimony by saying, “I hope you will recommend that schools must make their crime reports public so that students like me will have a fair chance to protect themselves.”

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee, commended Brzonkala for pursuing her case, saying, “You have and you will make a difference.”

Wagner said she was, “really gratified by the reception” Brzonkala received on Capitol Hill, a reception made all the more gratifying in light of what Wagner said were attempts by Virginia Tech to keep Brzonkala from testifying.

Brzonkala has suffered setbacks in each of her efforts to bring the two players to justice. In April, a grand jury declined to indict them on criminal charges, and in July a federal court judge dismissed her civil suit. The civil suit was the first to be filed under the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which gives female victims of hate crimes, such as sexual assault, the right to sue for damages in federal court. The judge ruled that the law is unconstitutional. Wagner said she has filed an appeal to the federal court decision with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Fall 1996, reports