Suspension of former NDSU women's AD may never be explained
MINNEAPOLIS - When Norwood Teague, former athletic director at the University of Minnesota, resigned earlier this month amid allegations of sexual harassment, the university openly discussed his conduct with reporters.
MINNEAPOLIS – When Norwood Teague, former athletic director at the University of Minnesota, resigned earlier this month amid allegations of sexual harassment, the university openly discussed his conduct with reporters.
President Eric Kaler held a news conference, and the university provided texts and documents that described what happened: While drinking at a group dinner, Teague aggressively pursued two women, sending them suggestive texts and physically harassing them.
North Dakota State University was not so transparent when former women's athletic director Lynn Dorn was suspended for two weeks without pay in March 2012. At the time, the university refused to describe the incident or release records that did so.
Even after Dorn left NDSU in March of this year, the university has refused to reveal what happened to spur her suspension three years ago, though state law maintains that once an investigation is complete, those records are a public document. NDSU officials have cited a federal law in redacting public records of key details of the harassment alleged by a male student.
The redacted documents don't specify what Dorn was accused of saying or doing.
Almost no information
The Forum earlier this year requested the Dorn incident report and investigation notes following her March retirement. Dorn is now a consultant on "mid- and long-range planning" for the Concordia College athletic department, spokeswoman Amy Kelly said, and Dorn declined to be interviewed for this article.
The NDSU incident report contained almost no information. The description - though the Risk Management Fund form says "be specific" - was simply, "inappropriate behavior as well as potential violations of NDSU policy."
The university also released a reprimand letter from then-Athletic Director Gene Taylor that echoed what officials said at the time: Dorn violated the university's anti-harassment policy.
Three years ago, Taylor also said that if no one had inquired about Dorn's suspension, as WDAY's Kevin Wallevand did, it would not have been made public at all.
The most revealing records released to The Forum via open records requests were eight photocopied pages of handwritten notes, which appear to be from interviews about an incident revolving around a comment.
But the writing is hard to make out, not always coherent and often redacted, painting a picture that is, at best, fuzzy.
"After addressing the (blacked out), she came back and made the comment (several lines blacked out)," reads one sentence from a student statement. It's unclear whether this student was the one involved in the incident.
"Shocked but laughed it off only because (blacked out) was so shocked. Never heard a man or male athlete making a similar comment," reads the handwritten student statement.
Other sentences are more opaque: "(Blacked out) felt Lynn got to that feelin in the type of (blacked out) as she had to be looking hard," reads a line from the same student statement, which university attorneys at first blacked out entirely before releasing a version with fewer redactions.
Former NDSU attorney and now president Chief of Staff Chris Wilson said the redactions were based on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that prevents schools from releasing "personally identifiable information about a student" without consent, Wilson said in an email.
The student statement continues with the lines, "no offensive to (blacked out) but how could she say that" and "frustrated at how would she make comments like that about (blacked out) and be so angry at Erich and what he did," possibly referring to former head volleyball coach Erich Hinterstocker, who resigned in fall 2010 under pressure from individuals such as Dorn.
The allegations against Hinterstocker were related to verbal abuse of athletes.
Other witness statements refer to a basketball game when Dorn was discussing the incident, but entire paragraphs are blacked out and the unredacted portions focus on the aftermath rather than the incident itself.
"If nothing serious happens to her then there is a concern that she is untouchable, and they are concerned that she will be able to do anything and say anything she wants and nothing will be done," says a statement from "Scott."
Most witnesses in the the investigation notes are referred to by first name only.
The use of FERPA to shield non-academic records is nothing new, but some argue that such use goes beyond the initial intent of the law.
"If a coach did something to a student, I don't think that would be covered by FERPA," said Jack McDonald, a lawyer for the North Dakota Newspaper Association. "That's the coach's conduct, that's what the coach is accused of doing."
McDonald said he gets the feeling North Dakota universities are "overly enthusiastic" to make FERPA-based redactions, often using "a little heavier hand than other places do."
For example, redacting the comment Dorn made to the student, "I would think that's an overuse of FERPA," he said. "I think FERPA was initially intended to be for academic records, not for any single thing that a student ever does anywhere on campus.
"In the university setting, literally every employee would have something to do with students at one time or another. Every dean, every president, every janitor," McDonald said. "It's a stretch to say, in most instances, that because you're investigating a university official, it's closed by FERPA."
In May, The Forum requested an attorney general's opinion about the university's interpretation of the matter, but ultimately withdrew the request after attorney general spokeswoman Liz Brocker said the result was a foregone conclusion. At the time, the office did not have the authority to review un-redacted records protected by federal law.
"We are required to base any opinion on the facts provided by the public entity (NDSU), so the opinion would have been, 'The redactions were compliant with FERPA,' " Brocker said.
The situation is different now. After a legislative change moved university attorneys into the attorney general's office on July 1, the office's attorneys "now are able to review FERPA material," Brocker wrote in an email.
However, too much time has passed since The Forum's records request to NDSU in April to file a new request for an opinion. Such requests must be made within 30 days of a record's denial.
"If they took out the student's name, that's one thing. But to take out everything the student said ... I don't know how that identifies a student any more than it would you or me," McDonald said. "I suppose if there's no pushback, they'll keep doing that."