Thanks for the advance notice. After conferring with some folks, please see below for a response to your questions. Prior to doing that, I do want to re-address some concerns I’d voiced previously.
Based on your e-mail and other questions you’ve posed over time, we are concerned that your approach to this story is based on a predetermined perception that MU should have been aware of the sexual incident involving Sasha and done something regarding it while she was a student. We’ve pointed out repeatedly that Sasha did not report this to anyone to our knowledge and that MU officials didn’t otherwise have any knowledge of the incident until the chat transcript was found during the search of Sasha’s e-mail account in response to her parents’ Sunshine Law request – of which the discovery was more than a year after Sasha had passed, and more than two-and-a-half years from the alleged incident. You previously have stated that MU personnel were aware of the incident while Sasha was a student, but when asked to provide information on that point so MU could follow it up, you specifically refused to do so. That is until now, hours before you intend to post a story online.
We wish you would have provided this information earlier because we believe it reflects important misperceptions on your organization’s part and we think it warrants more attention than it’s likely to get in one afternoon. Still, this is important, so we’ll do our best to address the issues quickly.
You seem to be implying, if not suggesting, that because Sasha told MU medical personnel about a sexual assault while she was a student, that other MU officials should have been aware and taken some sort of action. That is simply wrong.
It is my understanding that when an adult student, such as Sasha, is seeking treatment from MU medical personnel and informs them about a sexual assault, those medical personnel have duties of privacy and confidentiality to the student under state law, professional rules, and HIPAA. They are not required, or even allowed, to report the sexual assault to law enforcement or campus administrators without the authorization of the student. You previously have mentioned the affirmative obligation of universities to address student sexual assaults. That obligation particularly arises from Title IX. While the U.S. Department of Education interprets Title IX to require most university personnel to report student sexual assaults, that doesn’t apply to information that medical personnel receive in the course of treating patients. Nothing in Title IX sets aside a health care provider’s duty of confidentiality to a patient or otherwise requires or allows university medical personnel to report sexual assault of a student patient without that individual’s authorization.
MU’s Title IX website informs student victims of sexual assault that they can get treatment confidentially and without making a police report: http://equity.missouri.edu/titleix.php
. This is not just MU’s interpretation. In a quick Google search, right away I found other universities that emphasize how students can get confidential treatment from school medical personnel. I’m sure there are more, but here are some examples that popped up on the first page of my Google search:
Nothing in what you’ve provided suggests that Sasha asked or authorized MU medical personnel to report a sexual assault. We’re not otherwise aware of any information to that effect.
If your story is going to suggest that MU officials should have known of the sexual incident while Sasha was a student because she had reported something about it to medical personnel employed at MU, we strongly request that you revisit the story and reconsider the approach. Obviously, we’re concerned that the story is going to unjustifiably cast MU in a bad light. I’ve already written to you in that general regard. But our concern on this issue goes well beyond that.
Nicole, your organization could contribute to some real harm here if the story gets this wrong. If there’s a perception that medical personnel employed at universities should or must report sexual assaults to police or campus administration whenever a student discusses a sexual assault in seeking medical help, it could discourage victims of sexual assault from seeking treatment at the time of the assault or discussing it in connection with later treatment. That’s why university policies (like those noted above) make it a point to inform students that they can get treatment confidentially.
Secondarily, it’s not right – and is possibly defamatory – to run a story that states or implies that the health care providers who treated Sasha did something wrong by not reporting information of her sexual incident to police or campus administrators. Those people have professional and legal obligations of confidentiality and shouldn’t be faulted for abiding by them.
These considerations are important in addressing the second question you’ve posed. You essentially imply that because of questions Tom asked in the interviews, MU Athletics should have gone to mental health care providers who treated Sasha and questioned them about information she may have provided to them. How would it have been appropriate for MU Athletics staff to do that without authorization? I recognize that Sasha’s parents provided your organization with an authorization to get health records, but they have never provided anything like that to us. When Student Life asked Sasha’s parents if they wanted an investigation conducted, they did not respond, as I’d indicated to you in my December letter.
So, to respond to your second question: MU officials did not try to obtain information from medical personnel who treated Sasha about any sexual incident she may have reported while seeking treatment. Medical personnel employed by MU have privacy and confidentiality obligations to their patients an MU respects those obligations. Sasha had not provided any authorization for MU officials to access her medical records in that regard, nor do MU officials have any such authorization from Sasha’s parents. As soon as MU officials became aware of this sexual incident while reviewing Sasha’s e-mail account in response to a records request from Sasha’s parents, they wrote to Sasha’s parents and asked whether they wanted an investigation to occur. Sasha’s parents have not responded.
Their lack of response is pertinent to your first question as well and it points to what we believe may be another misunderstanding on your organization’s part. Several of your questions and statements over time suggest that ESPN is under the impression that a university must launch an investigation whenever it receives any information about a sexual assault involving a student. If that is your organization’s understanding, it represents an overstatement of what Title IX requires. The U.S. Department of Education’s guidance on Title IX allows a university to take into account a student’s request for confidentiality in deciding how to respond to a complaint. (This is addressed at page 5 of the following document: http://www2.ed.gov/a...ague-201104.pdf
.) This is not even a situation in which a student is making a complaint but requesting confidentiality. Instead, it is clear that Sasha chose not to make a complaint about this incident or report it to anyone at MU other than mentioning it to health care providers. The guidance from the Department does not address this situation but it seems as though this circumstance would warrant at least as much respect for Sasha’s apparent desire for confidentiality as a situation in which a student makes a complaint. That is partly why in this situation MU officials reached out to Sasha’s parents to ask whether they wanted an investigation to occur. I say “partly” because, aside from any analysis under Title IX, it seems like the right and respectful thing to do after her passing to ask Sasha’s parents what they want.
We still do not have any response from Sasha’s parents indicating that they want an investigation and we are not aware that they have made any complaint to law enforcement. We recognize that your organization has been in contact with Sasha’s parents, but we are not aware that ESPN speaks for them or acts as their agent – nor would that seem appropriate for a news organization. So we don’t see that you’ve made a request for an investigation on their behalf.
As to whether there is an independent reason or basis for an investigation apart from the wishes of Sasha or her parents, you have not added anything to the picture. All you have done is indicate that Sasha discussed the incident with health care providers. That does not provide any further information about the incident itself or risks on campus.
So, to respond to your first question: An important consideration in deciding how to address a report of a sexual incident is to determine what the alleged victim wants. In this situation, it is clear that Sasha chose not to report this incident to anyone at MU other than mentioning it to health care providers (who were bound to respect her privacy). Nonetheless, as soon as MU officials became aware of this sexual incident while reviewing Sasha’s e-mail account in response to a records request from Sasha’s parents, they wrote to Sasha’s parents and asked whether they wanted an investigation to occur. Sasha’s parents have not responded and we are not aware that they have taken any other action to prompt an investigation, such as filing a complaint with law enforcement. We continue to believe that MU has done the right and appropriate thing in asking Sasha’s parents about their wishes. We also continue to believe that questions about an investigation should be addressed between MU and Sasha’s parents. ESPN’s reporting on this issue has not changed our view on that matter.
I’ll close by restating what I had communicated in my previous letter to you in December. Our hearts and prayers continue to go out to Lynn and Mike for their tragic loss. We believe that they did everything they could to try and help Sasha, as we did here at Mizzou. We are hopeful that the overall focus of your piece is to help raise awareness about the challenges related to the issue of mental illness, and if there are things we can do from our position of leadership at Mizzou to assist, please consider us as willing to do so.
Best wishes on the feature.
Edited by Mizzou_Fan, 24 January 2014 - 04:33 PM.