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Congress and courts move on campus crime

FOI Alert Volume 2 Issue 14

The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that Miami University improperly withheld information on campus crimes.

Perhaps university officials are beginning to get the point -- campus disciplinary proceedings can no longer be shrouded in secrecy under the guise of educational records.

The 5-2 decision sends a strong message.

"Unfortunately, at present, crimes and other student misconduct are escalating at campuses across the nation. For potential students, and their parents, it is imperative that they are made aware of all campus crime statistics and other types of student misconduct in order to make an intelligent decision of which university to attend. Likewise, for students already enrolled in a university, their safety is of utmost importance. Without full public access to disciplinary proceeding records, that safety may be compromised," wrote Justice Francis E. Sweeney.

Crystal Paulk, a former student journalist at The Red and Black daily newspaper (University of Georgia), will make similar arguments in her testimony Thursday morning in a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education, Training and Life-Long Learning.

The subcommittee will be taking testimony on the Accuracy in Campus Crime Reporting Act of 1997 (HR 715).

The bill requires colleges and universities to maintain campus security logs that describe criminal acts that occur on campus, and to make those logs available to the public. It also amends the Buckley Amendment to make clear that disciplinary records involving criminal misconduct may not be withheld. The intent of the legislation then runs close to the Ohio Supreme Court's decision.

The Miami Student requested student disciplinary records from 1993 to 1996, hoping to build a database and track campus crime trends. But officials withheld the information citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974.

Student journalists sued the university after administrators deleted details from those records. By deleting the age and gender of the students charged, the university improperly withheld public information, Justice Francis Sweeney wrote in the court's majority opinion.

The court also held that certain information can be deleted, including a student's name, social security number, and student identification number, exact date and time of the alleged incident.

But other information must be disclosed: the general location of the incident, the age and sex of the student, the nature of the offense, and the type of disciplinary penalty imposed.

Students never requested personally identifying information, said Emily Hebert, who now works at the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Hebert, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said the newspaper hoped to build a database on criminal incidents. The intent was to alert students and faculty to high-crime areas on campus.

They also had hoped to check on the punishments handed down by the university to determine if those charged with campus incidents were receiving equal justice.

With a successful decision from the high court, the student newspaper can now continue its work and report on campus crime.

About $70,000 in student attorneys fees must also be paid by the university, according to the ruling.

Additional Sources:

Carolyn Carlson, chair of the Campus Courts Task Force (founded by SPJ) 404-651-5258
Mac McKerral, vice chair of the Campus Courts Task Force 334-670-3328
Mark Goodman, executive director, Student Press Law Center 703-807-1904
House Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education, Training and Life-long Learning
202-225-4527 (chaired by Howard McKeon, R-Calif.)

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