Education department rules UVA former policy incorrectly interpreted FERPA

VIRGINIA -- The Department of Education found that a former policy at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., incorrectly interpreted the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and violated the Clery Act by requiring student victims of sexual assault to abide by confidentiality agreements.

The campus security group Security on Campus filed a complaint with the Department 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 Assault Board, a division of the school's Judiciary Committee. She was told that she would have to agree to a confidentiality agreement in order to find out the results of the case. The university believed that allowing students to disclose information about the case would violate student privacy rights under FERPA, and students who spoke about their experiences were told they could be brought up on misconduct charges before the Judiciary Committee.

After four years, the Department of Education decided in a Nov. 3 letter ruling that sexual assault victims who talked about their cases were not violating FERPA, and in a letter to S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security on Campus, stated that the confidentiality policy itself was "inconsistent with letter and spirit of the Clery Act and the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act."

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

Carter said in an e-mail that the case at UVA was important because it would affect more colleges than the Georgetown decision because "the UVA approach involving verbal agreements and the threat of punishment after the fact is far more common" than Georgetown's written agreements.

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

Carter said that the Department's ruling will benefit victims of sexual assault.

"We are pleased that sexual assault victims will now have the freedom to share details about the results in their cases as they feel they need to as a part of their own healing process or if they want to raise issues about how their cases were handled," he said.

Carol Wood, assistant vice president for public affairs at UVA, said that the Department of Education's letter was under review by the university. She emphasized that the university's policies had changed substantially since the complaint was filed and that many of the policies in question have been 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 current students -- about the need for zero tolerance when it comes to sexual assault," she said.

news, University of Virginia, Virginia