When a college student is found guilty of sexual assault, many schools won’t note it on their academic transcripts. University of Vermont sophomore, Syd Ovitt, has launched a campaign to change this, and legislators are paying attention.
On a snowy afternoon, Ovitt stood behind a fold-up table in UVM’s student center, which was covered with pink homemade flyers and candy. She was spreading the word about a legislative campaign she started called Explain the Asterisk. Ovitt described her hope “to require colleges and universities to explicitly differentiate when a student’s been kicked out for things like bad grades or plagiarism compared to if they’re kicked out for sexual or domestic violence or stalking.”
Ovitt’s campaign is personal. About a year ago, during her first semester at UVM, Ovitt said she was sexually assaulted by a fellow student. She went from being excited about school to barely making it to class. “It was just really hard,” she said. “My PTSD was like really bad. I just couldn’t sleep. I was having nightmares all the time.”
She reported the assault to the school. And, she said, after a four-month long investigation, her alleged perpetrator was found not guilty. Still, Ovitt researched the laws around campus sexual assault proceedings and discovered what would have happened if he was found guilty. "If he was to be dismissed, like he could just transfer to another school with a clean slate. And that just made me feel really uneasy.” She says she found a lot of holes in the system, but that one in particular stunned her.
Some colleges and universities put a mark on students' academic transcripts – like an asterisk – if they’re expelled for violating the code of conduct. But it usually doesn’t specify if the student plagiarized, flunked out, or if they were found guilty of a violent crime, like rape. So, if a student applies to transfer to another school, it may not be immediately clear to admissions staff.
While some critics say that's an imperfect system, UVM doesn't mark transcripts with non-academic violations at all. Even if a student is found guilty of sexual assault, that would not show up in the transcript. Instead, the school keeps sexual assault violations on disciplinary files, which students are more able to withold from their records. This, Ovitt said, "just irked me."
In the lead-up to Vermont’s next legislative session, Ovitt emailed every single legislator in the state to tell them about the issue. She started a Change.org petition to help build momentum and, in under a year, it’s gotten almost 50,000 signatures.
UVM’s Registrar, Veronika Carter, oversees student records, including transcripts. She said the issue isn’t so simple. She explained most schools keep disciplinary notifications off of transcripts because strict laws, like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), protect student privacy. Carter also worried a sexual assault violation on a transcript could keep students who have not been found guilty in a court of law from getting college degrees or landing jobs. “One of the concerns is that once the disciplinary notations are added to transcripts – the transcript itself almost acts like a form of sex offender registry,” Carter said. She said a lot of details would need to be nailed down before UVM would consider changing its policy. For now, UVM is maintaining the status quo.
But in 2017, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, the lead professional organization for registrars, issued new guidelines saying that putting certain behavioral violations on transcripts is a good way for colleges to keep students safe from repeat offenders. Two states – New York and Virginia – have passed laws requiring sexual assault violations to be marked on academic transcripts. Last year, California Congresswoman Jackie Speier introduced the “The Safe Transfer Act,” a federal bill that would require transcripts to indicate if a student broke their school’s sexual violence policies. It didn’t gain traction. But a similar bill could get a second chance.
Beyond state legislators, Ovitt reached out to Vermont’s Congressional delegates. While most lawmakers responded to her with short emails, Congressman Peter Welch sent Ovitt a handwritten postcard telling her about his intention to co-sponsor another federal bill with Speier in January. While Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently proposed giving additional protections to college students accused of sexual misconduct, Welch is hopeful that with a Democratic majority in the House a bill supporting survivors will have success.
“This is all a result of the forthright action of Syd coming forward and trying to turn what was a really horrible, horrible event in her life into something that can be constructive," Welch said.
In the meantime, Ovitt has been reaching out to every U.S. Senator, working her way down the list of states alphabetically. She just reached Maine.
Correction 12/6/18 1 p.m. A previous version of this story misspelled Veronika Carter. The post has been updated.