Judge orders university to turn over hazing records to local newspaper

Allegations prompt U.Vt. to put hockey team's season on ice

VERMONT -- The upperclassmen of the University of Vermont ice hockey team called it tradition.

"It's going to be the worst, best night of your life," reported a freshman hockey player to state investigators, describing what a senior team member told him regarding the "Big Night."

On that "Big Night" in October, Corey LaTulippe was forced to walk in line like an elephant, cradling the genitals of a fellow freshman walking directly ahead, according to a report from the state attorney general's office. He has since withdrawn from the university and filed suit in federal court. LaTulippe, at the time a freshman trying out for the hockey team, complained to the university about the October party. Team members told investigators that they were forced to eat seafood pie until they vomited and drink warm beer and liquor at the party, among other forced activities.

The university canceled the rest of the team's hockey season in January after campus officials discovered some players had lied during a university investigation into allegations of hazing by the team.

After receiving the complaint from LaTulippe's lawyer in October, the university launched a formal investigation into the allegations. The Burlington Free Press heard rumors of the investigation and asked the university for 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 or investigation," said Mickey Hirten, executive editor of the Free Press.

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

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

"We were really vindicated by Bryan's decision," Hirten said. "The university is a public institution, and we felt it very important that the public be aware, especially in matters of public safety. And hazing is certainly a matter of public safety."

The school had argued that a federal law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, prohibited it from releasing the documents because it constituted a violation of students' privacy. Bryan argued that the university could erase students' names from the documents so that little information about the students would be revealed.

In his decision, Bryan pointed to changes to FERPA enacted by Congress last year that allow schools to disclose the results of any campus disciplinary proceeding involving a student found responsible for a violent crime or nonforcible sex offense. Bryan ruled that because the allegations described in LaTulippe's complaint suggest that if not force, then unwelcome pressure inducing sexual acts and nudity were involved, the school could not use FERPA as a defense.

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

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

"Both FERPA and our obligation to our students guided our actions in this situation," said Enrique Corredera, a university spokesman. "FERPA explicitly states that universities can't turn over information contained in student records to external law enforcement officers, with limited exceptions."

The university asked Attorney General William H. Sorrell's office to investigate the hazing matter last December, the first referral of the affair to any law enforcement agency. School officials told investigators from the attorney general's office that they did not involve law enforcement earlier because they did not realize the allegations involved potential criminal conduct other than underage drinking. The attorney general's office released its report on Feb. 3, confirming that the hazing occurred and finding the school's response insufficient.

"The law and the regulations promulgated [under FERPA] provide exceptions for 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.

reports, Spring 2000