In response to a complaint filed by Georgetown senior Kate Dieringer (NUR ‘05), the U.S. Department of Education informed the University July 16 that it could not force sexual assault victims to keep the names of their assailants secret.
Dieringer could not contain her happiness with news of the decision.
“I feel like I’ve been able to be Kate again and that this no longer dominates my life as it has for the past three years,” she said.
Assistant Vice-President for Communications Julie Green Bataille said that the University will change its policy to comply with the DOE’s directive by the beginning of the Fall 2004 semester.
A Georgetown disciplinary committee in the spring of 2002 found a student responsible for a “Category C” violation against Dieringer. A “Category C” violation is defined by the University as the most serious type of offense, assault with bodily injury. The assault took place in the first month of her first year.
In order to be informed of her assailant’s possible sanction, however, Dieringer had to sign a confidentiality agreement before the adjudication process took place, restricting her ability to reveal the accused’s name to anyone but her parents and one close adviser.
The disciplinary committee initially expelled the student from Georgetown but, upon appeal, shortened his sentence to a one-year suspension. The sanction left Dieringer fuming.
“The problem was actually the outcome,” she said. “It was ridiculous to not expel someone because he only raped one person,” she said.
After learning the decision, Dieringer filed a formal complaint with the DOE in February 2003, alleging that the University was breaking federal law by forcing sexual assault victims to sign non-disclosure agreements.
Before the directive was issued, the University had maintained that it must keep the identity of those accused of sexual assault confidential in order to preserve the integrity of student educational records as mandated by federal law under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.
The DOE, however, determined that the University was in violation of the 1990 Jeanne Clery Act, which stipulates that colleges must publicly disclose all crimes that occur on campus.
“The University must discontinue its use of non-disclosure agreements with regard to the dissemination of judicial proceeding outcomes and sanctions to accusers and the accused in cases of alleged sexual offenses,” the DOE wrote in a letter addressed to University President John DeGioia.
David Bergeron, the Director of Policy and Budget Development at the DOE’s Office of Secondary Education, said that the specific statutes of the Clery Act overruled the more general FERPA requirements in the DOE’s decision.
“The Clery Act trumps the FERPA requirements of sexual assault,” he said. “It’s that simple, in our view.”
According to Daniel Carter, Senior Vice President of the victims-advocate group Security on Campus Inc., the government’s decision could have an important effect on campus sexual assault policy across the country.
While Carter believes that more cases will be examined by the DOE, he said that the decision is an important step towards greater rights for sexual assault victims.
“The prospect of disciplinary action has had a chilling effect on victims’ ability to speak out,” he said. “Without oversight, there are chances that a miscarriage of justice can occur.”
While the University originally enacted the non-disclosure policy to protect the privacy of students, Elizabeth Trautman (SFS ‘05) co-chairperson of Take Back the Night, an annual event that focuses on gender-motivated violence, said the DOE’s decision did not mean that those accused of sexual assault would be publicly exposed.
“I think what it will allow is for victims of sexual assault on campus to seek the help they need from friends, trusted advisors etc.,” she said.
Dieringer, meanwhile looks forward to starting her senior year at Georgetown.
“It’s been a long road, but thankfully it’s culminated in something that’s good for everyone, good for Georgetown,” she said.