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House Committee Discusses For-Profit Colleges, Sexual Assault During Interim Studies

Oct 6, 2016

Lawmakers discussed Oklahoma’s for-profit colleges and sexual assaults on college campuses during a pair of interim studies Wednesday in the House Higher Education and Career Tech Committee.

State Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, requested the study, and Education Secretary Natalie Shirley agreed with his assessment that private vocational schools play an important role in Oklahoma's education system.

“What we've seen is that a number of our students across the state have been injured,” Shirley said. “And I know in talking to them that those that are represented here today are eager to find ways so that their good name isn't besmirched."

One of those students, Tim Stevenson, is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who used his GI benefits to pay for classes at ITT Technical Institute in Oklahoma City. Stevenson would’ve completed his degree program in December, but the school closed earlier this year.

"I feel like I was robbed of my benefits by going to an institution that shut their door in my face,” Stevenson said. “I don't feel that I deserved that, or any of the other students that were there with us trying to better themselves."

Stevenson says he has more than $20,000 of student debt after attending ITT. He's now enrolled and pursuing at degree at Oklahoma State University's Oklahoma City campus. None of Stevenson's ITT credits will transfer, but he does have an opportunity to test out of certain classes if he feels he's learned the material before.

Oklahoma does have an oversight system for for-profit colleges and similar institutions – the Board of Private Vocational Schools. Executive Director Nora House and board members Mike Pugliesi and Teresa Knox told lawmakers the best way to improve regulations would be to increase transparency, eCapitol’s Shawn Ashley reports:

Pugliesi, who previously owned and operated Platt College, a for-profit technical training school, and currently owns and operates another for-profit institution, said ITT's situation did not develop suddenly. Records show, he said, problems dating back at least 2014.

"This school did not close overnight. It closed over a long period of time. If we had seen that coming, we could have been working to avoid this situation," said Pugliesi.

He said the way ITT and Wright Business College, which also closed earlier this year, was "unconscionable."

Knox, who also owns and operates three for-profit schools, and Pugliesi said part of the problem also rests on the shoulders of the U.S. Department of Education, which also oversaw the school. In its final days, the department required the school to post a $200 million that it could not afford, a move some blame for the closing, the two said.

House and Pugliesi said had the board been aware of the problems earlier it could have worked with the school and its students to prepare for the closing. Instead, Navarro said he was told two weeks before the school locked its doors that he would be able to complete his program but then was notified by email that the school had ceased operations immediately.

Some of those issues have been addressed in Senate Bill 1157, which Gov. Mary Fallin signed earlier this year. It requires all private and out-of-state public degree-granting institutions receive national accreditation.

House said her agency also is implementing a new set of financial standards to help ensure institutions have sufficient financial reserves to support their operations. The rules took effect in September for new licensees and will take effect for previously licensed institutions in 2018, House said.

"The rules also require the school to inform the board when they receive a notice of adverse actions for the U.S. Department of Education or their accrediting agency," said House.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Shirley pledged to work with Caldwell, Wright, Henke and other legislators, as well as House, her board and Blanke, to see whether additional legislation was needed. "We need to make sure future students don't find themselves in a similar situation."

Talk Of Title IX

After a lunch recess, the Committee convened to discuss sexual assault and Title IX funding. State Rep. Claudia Griffith, D-Norman, says students and advocacy groups were very involved after a series of rapes involving high school students in Norman. But Griffith said on college campuses, she feels like the response is lacking.

In this Tuesday, March 3, 2015 photo, Oklahoma state Rep. Claudia Griffith, D-Norman, is pictured during a news conference in Oklahoma City.
Credit Sue Ogrocki / AP

“As a public health nurse, I knew that, when I worked at Cleveland County Health Department, on weekends after sorority and fraternity parties the clinic was overwhelmed with students that came in because they didn't know what they had done at the party the night before, who they had sex with, and there was a lot of issues relating to alcohol and what was involved during those times,” Griffith said.

Michelle Stansel, the prevention and advocacy coordinator for the University of Central Oklahoma's Project SPEA, described sexual assaults as a humanity issue,” eCapitol’s Tyler Talley reports:

Statistics on what Stansel described as a "humanity issue" included:

• Nearly one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while college.

• More than 90 percent of victims on college campuses do not report the incident.

• Only 2 to 8 percent of the cases are false reports.

• 66 percent of the time, a bystander was present at the crime.

In how the issue relates to Title IX, she explained, through the federal law, colleges and universities receive federal funding to adequately address sexual assault claims filed at their respective campuses. There are currently 194 Title IX investigations taking place in Oklahoma.

Stansel told lawmakers there are now more Title IX requirements for reporting sexual assault, but that hasn't come with an increase in federal funding. Stansel also said that legislation doesn't account for diversity among institutions.

"The demographic makeup of UCO looks completely different than OU, which looks completely different than OSU, or OCCC, for example,” Stansel said. “And so this blanket approach - it's not meeting the needs of each individual university."

After the presentation, Griffith said she wasn't sure if she'd pursue legislation addressing the issue, but told advocacy groups they were welcome to meet with her before the December 9 deadline to submit bills for the 2017 legislative session.

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