When Kate Dieringer (NHS ’05) was forced to sign a confidentiality agreement to learn the outcome of her sexual assault case, she was outraged. And after successfully challenging the university’s interpretation of federal law last year, Dieringer ensured that students at Georgetown and across the country will not have to sign disclosure agreements in future cases.
This summer the Department of Education struck down Georgetown University ‘s policy requiring alleged sexual assault victims to sign a confidentiality agreement in order to learn the outcome of their judicial hearing.
The ruling invalidates the use of such nondisclosure agreements in sexual assault cases nationwide. University administrators had argued that nondisclosure agreements were necessary to protect students’ privacy under federally mandated standards, including the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act.
” Georgetown University ‘s student disciplinary system is designed to address with integrity and sensitivity issues of student misconduct in the context of our educational mission,” university spokeswoman Julie Bataille said in a statement. “Our disclosure policy reflected our best understanding of the law and earlier guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.”
The July 16 decision, however, concluded that the university’s responsibility to guarantee the accuser and the accused access to the results of sexual assault cases under the Clery Act – which requires the reporting of campus crime statistics by universities that receive federal funding – superceded the university’s need to protect the privacy rights of the accused. The department said that the Clery Act requires unconditional access to sanctions in judicial hearings.
Kate Dieringer (NHS ’05) and Security on Campus, Inc., a campus safety watchdog group, filed the complaint with the department in April 2003 after Dieringer objected to signing a confidentiality agreement, which Security on Campus termed an “unconscionable revictimization.”
Dieringer notified Georgetown ‘s Office of Student Conduct in spring 2002 that she had been sexually assaulted by a New Student Orientation student advisor in fall 2001. Her alleged attacker was expelled, but his sanction was later reduced, upon appeal, to a one-year suspension.
” Georgetown was endangering other students by allowing a student, whom they deemed to have been responsible for violent actions, to return to campus,” Dieringer said, “and I couldn’t tell anyone this information.”
Dieringer publicized her assault and her grievances with the adjudication hearing in fall 2002, prompting students to lobby for changes to the university’s sexual assault policies. While the federal department dismissed a second complaint that argued that her civil rights had been violated during her adjudication hearing, Georgetown students were able to bring about reforms to the adjudication process.
Todd Olson, vice president for student affairs, implemented all of the changes recommended this year by a discipline review committee, including the reclassification of sexual assault into the most severe category in the university’s adjudication process and the implementation of a physical barrier separating the accuser and accused during judicial hearings.
Olson, however, maintained that the committee did not review disclosure agreements because the university was not in violation of the Clery Act. While Georgetown could have faced up to $27,500 in fines and the loss of eligibility to participate in federal student aid programs, the department did not sanction the university for violating the Clery Act, citing “open issues of genuine confusion in the higher education community.”
Georgetown submitted modified policies within 30 days of the ruling, adding an exception to confidentiality agreements in cases that deal with “alleged sex offenses” in the 2004-05 Student Handbook’s Code of Conduct.
“This decision provides clarification for us as we work to balance the confidentiality [and] privacy rights of our students with students’ interest in accountability and openness in cases involving sexual assault,” Olson said. “We know this balancing act is an important one, and we will continue to balance these two interests as carefully as we can.”
S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president for Security on Campus, said that nondisclosure agreements aim to protect the university from increased scrutiny, however, and not the privacy rights of accused students.
“In many ways the type of gag order Georgetown imposed had less to do with student privacy than limiting discussion about how campus court proceedings work,” he said, adding that Dieringer’s bravery in speaking out would allow other victims to come forward by knowing that they are not alone.
“Rape is a crime that thrives in silence, the silence of victims, the silence of campus courts, and the silence of the greater community,” Carter said. “The U.S. Department of Education’s ruling in this case has put a significant crack in that deafening wall of silence. One lone voice in the night put that crack there. Imagine what dozens, what hundreds could do.”
The ruling only applied to sexual assault; victims’ rights advocates hope to see confidentiality agreements repealed on all violent crimes in the future.
Jeff and Debbie Shick have been working to introduce legislation against confidentiality agreements ever since their son, David A. Shick, a Georgetown junior, died from injuries sustained in an altercation in the Lauinger Library parking lot in February 2000. Through the help of their Congressman, Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), they are hoping to end the use of such agreements for all violent crimes.
“Opening campus judicial records would improve the quality of life on campus,” Debbie Shick said. While she said that she was “very happy” with the department’s ruling, Shick said she believes that Georgetown has more work remaining to improve its adjudication system. “It is time for Georgetown to do what is morally right rather than be forced to do what is right by legislation.”