Testing for Compliance
The SPLC visited six Washington, D.C.-area schools seeking campus crime information. We found that the search for public records can be an uphill battle
There are two sides to a university campus. There are the colorful brochures handed out by the public relations office, and even the daily facade of a safe environment.
But there is another side that administrators often do not want students to know about-the assault, the theft, the harassment. That is why it can be so difficult to obtain records detailing an incident of campus crime. Hundreds of student journalists tell the Student Press Law Center that each year. And now we have first-hand knowledge that your experience is not unique.
Over a period of several weekdays in June and July, the SPLC Report staff visited campus police departments and judicial affairs offices at schools located near our office in Arlington, Va. We decided to ask for crime statistics for 1997, the police log for the week of April 26, a randomly selected date, and the outcomes of student disciplinary proceedings for the 1999 spring semester.
Under the Campus Security Act, also known as the Clery Act, all schools are required to publish crime statistics for each year, broken down by crime. In the fall of 1998, Congress also required schools to keep open campus police or security department logs. Both of these requirements are included in Volume 20 United States Code, section 1092(f).
In 1998, Congress also amended the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as the Buckley Amendment, to say that schools can release the outcomes of certain student disciplinary proceedings involving crimes of violence and non-forcible sex offenses without notifying the disciplined student in advance. (20 U.S.C. section 1232g(b)(6)(B)). Therefore, federal law does not prohibit schools from releasing the name of a student found guilty of such an offense, the violation committed and the sanction imposed. Although federal law does not now require these records to be released, public schools covered by their state open records law may be obligated to do so. Private schools, because they are not covered by state open records laws, can, but are not required, to release the information.
Universities that are reluctant to provide access to crime records may be scared that campus crime facts and records are bad publicity, according to Daniel Carter, vice president for Security on Campus, an advocacy group for accurate campus crime reporting.
"Schools depend upon their good images to get students, endowments and other funding," he said. "If they have a bad image, this is put at jeopardy."
Whatever the motivation, our experience is that it is very difficult to obtain some of these records, despite the fact that they are required to be open under the law. Some campus officials were unfamiliar with their legal obligations, others sent us to the university lawyer's office and others simply told us we could not have the records.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of these results is that schools are rarely if ever penalized for violations of the law. The Department of Education has found at least four schools -- Miami University in Ohio, Moorhead State University in Minnesota, Virginia Tech and the University of Pennsylvania -- in violation of the Campus Security Act. Those schools only received letters instructing them on how to become compliant. No fines were issued, said Jane Glickman, a DOE public affairs representative. For those denied access to information that could have protected their safety, the damage is already done.
In addition, Miami University of Ohio has come under criticism for its reluctance to release disciplinary records. But in Miami Student v. Miami University, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the school must give the campus student newspaper the outcomes of disciplinary proceedings.
"The judicial affairs administrators do not want the interference that public scrutiny would bring," Carter said. "They seem to believe that they know best and that what the rest of the community-students, parents, the media, alumni, area business and local governments-may want could conflict with that."
Carter added that open disciplinary proceeding outcomes are important because they create a sense of security for the campus community.
"Victims and even the accused are robbed of their rights in closed hearings with no public oversight," he said.
We began this project by selecting six local schools, a mix of large and small, public and private, and sending a single reporter to each, requesting crime statistics, police or security logs, and the outcomes of certain disciplinary proceedings. Since most of the relevant laws require public access to the records in question, our reporters identified themselves by name only. We wanted to be treated as any person walking in off the street would be. If pressed, they said that they were from the Student Press Law Center, working on a project on campus crime. The results, described in detail below, were mixed. Statistics were relatively easy to obtain. Disciplinary records, virtually impossible. Even basic police logs were made available at most schools only because of extensive effort and time by our reporters.
Our reporters received crime statistics and some police logs from each of the six schools visited. Only one school provided any disciplinary records, and that information was extremely vague.
The conclusion we ultimately reached after our effort to obtain these crime records presents a disturbing picture. If a reporter well-versed in the requirements of state and federal law has as much trouble getting access to basic crime information as we did, our guess is that the average student seeking basic crime reports often walks away with nothing -- out of frustration if not from an outright denial.
What follows is our reporters' narratives of their efforts to get access to crime records at the six schools we surveyed. We would encourage you to make a similar test on your own college or university campus, and let us know the results. If you have problems getting information you are entitled to, contact the SPLC. The new edition of our booklet, "Covering Campus Crime," can help you understand the law. We want to ensure that every student journalist has a clear picture of the extent of campus crime.
The Schools Surveyed:
· George Mason University is a public university in Fairfax, Va., with an enrollment of 24,010.
· Georgetown University is a private university in Washington, D.C., with an enrollment of about 9,000.
· George Washington University is a private university in Washington, D.C., with an enrollment of 18,000.
· Howard University is a private university in Washington, D.C., with an enrollment of 10,248.
· Marymount University is a private university in Arlington, Va., with an enrollment of 3,800.
· The University of Maryland is a public university in College Park, Md., with an enrollment of 36,711.
George Mason University
Campus crime statistics
I visited the campus police station at 11 a.m. on June 24. I told the receptionist that I needed copies of campus crime statistics for 1997, and a copy of the police log for the week of April 26. She asked my name, which I gave to her, and then she asked me who I was. I began to ask her if it mattered, and she interjected, asking if I was a student or if I "just wanted them [the records]." I said I just wanted them. She wrote down my requests, and gave me a copy of the statistics for 1995, 1996 and 1997.
The same receptionist said she would have to ask the captain about the log, but he was meeting with someone else, so she placed a phone call to another officer, whose name was Lt. McCall.
The receptionist said McCall wanted to speak with me, so I dialed her number on the courtesy phone in the police department reception area, identified myself and told her I was requesting a copy of the log. She asked me where I was from, so I asked her if there were certain criteria the department used to determine who could have access to their records.
"Yes, I need to know who you are before I can release anything to you," she said.
(Federal law requires that police/security logs be "open to public inspection." There is no provision that allows the logs to be held from certain individuals. In addition, the Virginia open records laws requires records such as these to be "open to inspection and copying by any citizens of the Commonwealth." Our reporter, who was living in Virginia, met the statutory requirements to be considered a citizen of the state.)
I told her I was a reporter for the Student Press Law Center. She asked me what I wanted, and I told her again that I wanted a copy of the police log. She asked what was so special about the particular week I was requesting. (As mentioned above, our reporting team picked at random one week during the spring school semester so our request to each school would be the same.) I told her that I would not know until I had a chance to review the information. Obviously unhappy with my response, she repeated her question. I again said I would have to see the information to determine that. She said she would have to speak with the captain, and he would decide if I could have the records in question.
After I got off the phone with McCall, I sat in the waiting area for approximately 20 minutes until Capt. Jenkins came out with what I would soon discover were copies of the records. He asked me if he could help me. I told him I wanted a copy of the log (this was the fifth time I had stated my request to someone in the campus police department). He handed me the copies of the log.
"Now, you understand that we give this to anybody who wants it," he said. "It's public information. But the only two avenues that ever request it are the two campus newspapers."
It seemed to me that he was trying to reassure me that the department was complying with the law. He proceeded to hand me copies of the logs I requested, yet still seemed somewhat hesitant. I thanked him, and he said that if I had any more questions, I should let him know.
Outcomes of disciplinary proceedings
On July 1 at 12:05 p.m., I visited the Office of Judicial Affairs at the university in search of copies of disciplinary proceeding outcomes for the spring semester. I entered the office and the receptionist asked my name and what I wanted. I explained I was there to see the dean of students, Gerard Mulherin, to request copies of the outcomes of disciplinary proceedings. She went into Mulherin's office and spoke with him, and then he came out and asked me what I wanted. I told him. He asked for my name, and asked me to spell it as well, which I did. Next, he asked me if I just wanted the records "for my own." Thinking he was asking me if I wanted the records for "my own" use, I said yes. He then asked me who I "was having difficulty with." I told him that I had misunderstood him, and I was not looking for my own records, but for all records from the spring semester for all students with such files.
"Now you're talking about confidential information," he said as he shook his head.
I told him that actually the information was not private under federal law.
"Just who do you represent?," he asked me.
I asked him if it mattered, and he said, "Yes, of course it does."
I said I was a reporter with the SPLC. He told me to submit my request in writing and then he would pass it on to the university's attorneys. I produced a request letter I had written ahead of time. He seemed surprised that I had a letter with me, and he started reading it. I thanked him again and told him I looked forward to hearing from him.
(To make your own written request, see the SPLC's State Open Records Request Letter Generator. It will help you produce a letter stating the relevant provisions of your own state open records law. You might want to add to such a letter a specific description of the FERPA amendment that said the outcome of certain disciplinary proceedings can be released without the institution having to obtain the permission of or notify the offending student, as described in the introduction above.)
On July 13, I received a letter, dated July 9, from Mulherin informing me that it was "practically impossible" to provide me with the records, or to determine whether they were available or an exception to the state open records law applied within the five day deadline provided by Virginia open records law. He said the university was exercising its right under the act to take an additional seven working days to respond to my request.
On July 21, I received a letter postmarked July 20 from Mulherin. The letter denied my request for access to the disciplinary records. It cited an exception under Virginia's freedom of information act. The letter said that "'scholastic records containing information concerning identifiable individuals...' are excluded from FOIA."
George Washington University
Campus crime statistics
At the University Police office on the morning of June 18, I asked an office worker for crime statistics for the 1997 school year, and for the police logs for the week of April 26. She handed me a booklet in which the crime statistics were published.
"What else did you need?" she asked. "The logs," I said.
She asked a couple of questions: Are you a student? Are you doing this research for a class? I said no to both questions, and asked her if records were only released to certain people. She said no.
She asked again who I was, so I told her that I was a reporter with the Student Press Law Center doing some research on campus crime. She went to get the police logs, which were several individual incidents, one per sheet of paper in a binder. I asked if I could get copies, and she said that they do not make copies of them. She let me look through the logs, and I wrote down the incidents. As I was finishing, the director came out of her office and asked if I was doing research for school. I told her no, that I was a reporter with the SPLC. She was very polite and even gave me an incomplete copy of 1998's crime statistics. (They were not required to be released until Sept. 1.)
Outcomes of disciplinary proceedings
At the administration building on the morning of June 22, a receptionist said to go to the Office of the Dean of Students to inquire about disciplinary matters. However, when I got there, a woman told me I had to go to Fulbright Hall, where the judicial office was. She also asked who I was. I gave her my first name.
It would be rather difficult for someone who was not a George Washington University student to get into Fulbright Hall, a residence hall that requires a GW student card to enter the building. Because I was living on the GW campus for the summer, I had such a card.
In the office, I told a man at the front desk that I was trying to get copies of the outcomes of disciplinary proceedings from the spring semester. He said he was uncertain if I could obtain those. He took me into the office of the director, Martin Hicks.
Hicks politely asked what I needed. I told him. He said that he was not allowed to give out those records. I said that federal law permitted schools to release them.
Miami Student v. Miami University). He said that FERPA did not allow him to release the records.
I said that FERPA allowed schools to release, for certain crimes, the name of the violation, the student who committed it if that student was found guilty, and the sanction imposed. He said that the District of Columbia was "still waiting" for a law that allowed schools to release that information and that he could not release it.
In fact, D.C. has no law that prohibits the release of these records.
He asked if I was doing work for school. I told him that I was a reporter with the SPLC.
Campus crime statistics
On June 22, I visited the Department of Public Safety. When I found it a little before noon, I told a man at the front desk that I needed the crime statistics for 1997, and the police log for the week of April 26. He gave me a booklet that had the published statistics for 1997.
He asked what else I needed. I told him and then he went to get a Sgt. Busey. Busey came out, and I told him that I needed copies of the police logs. He looked confused, shook his head and said somewhat unconfidently, "I don't think we let people see those."
I told him that, as I understood, under the law, the public could see those records.
"I don't think so," he said.
"Are you sure?" I said.
Suddenly he seemed to reconsider, and took me through the "employees only" door. He told me to sit in a room that had a chalkboard and desks. I waited there and he came back with a dilapidated ledger book. First, he brought out the wrong book, so he had to find the book with April incidents in it. When he brought the correct book, he asked if I was doing a school project. I said I was doing some research on campus crime for work.
It took him several seconds to find the exact week I was looking for. He said I could not photocopy it, but he had no problem if I wanted to hand copy it, so I did, while he stayed in the room.
Outcomes of disciplinary proceedings
I arrived at the Georgetown University Office of Student Conduct in the Leavey Center around 1 p.m. on June 22. When I arrived at the front desk, a man sitting there said, "You'll probably have to talk to someone else, but is it an easy or hard question that you have?"
"Well, that all depends," I said. So I told him that I was looking for copies of the outcome of disciplinary proceedings from the spring semester.
He said, "Oh, OK, you'll have to talk to her," and pointed to a woman named Tiffany Conway, judicial coordinator.
I said that I wanted the outcome of certain student disciplinary proceedings, as Conway listened.
"Oh no," she said, looking somewhat shocked that I would even ask for that information. "We can't violate the victims' confidentiality."
I explained that I did not want information about the victims, but as I understood it, FERPA allowed schools to release the name of any student found guilty, the crime committed, and the sanctions imposed.
"No," she said. "In D.C., there is no state law that allows us to do that."
In D.C., there is no law that prohibits the release of information either.
Campus crime statistics
Howard University's security department made access to information extremely difficult. The building was hard to find, and when I got there at 11 a.m. on June 24, the officers at the front desk had no idea what I was talking about when I asked for crime statistics and police logs.
I had to go upstairs to look for the office of the department's administrative assistant. I asked her for the campus crime statistics, saying I was doing some research on campus crime. She returned with a half-sheet of paper containing the crime statistics for 1996, 1997 and 1998.
I asked her for the police log for the week of April 26. She asked me why I wanted to see the log and I again said I was doing research on campus crime. She went into the office of Maj. Harvey G. Armstrong to ask him whether I could see the police logs. When she came back, she told me I would have to speak to Armstrong myself.
I asked Armstrong for the logs, explaining that I was doing research. He said he could not give me access to the logs. I said federal law mandated that both private and public university police logs be open to the public. Armstrong said he could not release them and told me to go to the university's General Counsel office.
On June 28, 1999, at 11 a.m., I went to the General Counsel's office and spoke to the receptionist. I told her Armstrong had referred me to her office because I wanted to view copies of the campus police logs, and I gave her a letter citing the federal law. She left the office-I presume to talk to one of the attorneys-and came back to tell me to return to the security department and tell Armstrong to call her if he had any questions.
I went back to the security department and told Armstrong the General Counsel's office said I could have access to the police logs. He called the General Counsel's office to confirm my claim and told me the logs would not be ready for me to view for several hours. I asked if he wanted me to come back later that day and he said "or tomorrow." I said I would prefer to come back today. He said to come back at 2 p.m.
When I returned at 2, Armstrong retrieved the police log-a very beat-up, green ledger book-and said he knew the log should be public, but officers record confidential information, such as names, in it. (In fact, under federal law there is no prohibition on the release of names in law enforcement unit records.) He said he had covered up the names in it so that I could look at it. I followed Armstrong into the police chief's office where he pulled out a chair for me and then sat right next to me. He opened the log and covered the other side of the page with a manila folder so I could not see it. I asked if he could make a copy for me, but he said the copier was broken. I took out a pen and a notebook and copied the incidents in the ledger.
Armstrong asked again what I was looking for, and I again said I was doing campus crime research. He then asked me for some identification, saying he wanted to make sure I was who I said I was. I said I had a driver's license and he asked to see it. I continued copying down incidents and asked Armstrong questions about notations I did not understand. I asked him if he was planning to create a log that did not contain confidential information so that the public could have access to it. He mumbled something about plans to do that. I finished copying and got up to leave. Armstrong apologized for the time it took me to access the information and said he hoped that next time I would have an easier time finding the information.
My experience at the Howard University security department was difficult for a working reporter, let alone a concerned student or parent. It took several days to get access to the police logs and when I did, I felt so intimidated and uncomfortable that I thought I was going to cry or flee. I wrote as fast as I could just so I could get out of there.
Outcomes of disciplinary proceedings
On June 28 at 11:35 a.m., I spoke to the student receptionist while waiting for Dean Vincent Johns. I told him I wanted copies of the outcomes of student disciplinary proceedings for the spring 1999 semester. He said I could wait for the dean, but he probably would not let me have them. I told the receptionist that universities are allowed to release the outcomes of student disciplinary proceedings when the student involved is found guilty of a violent offense. He said I would have to wait for Johns. He offered me some water while I was waiting. When Johns entered, the receptionist told him I wanted copies of the spring disciplinary proceedings. He said no. That was the end of the conversation.
Campus crime statistics
I went to the Campus Safety Office of Marymount University on July 9. I asked the receptionist for campus crime statistics for 1997. I was greeted with a polite and cheerful, "Sure!" She went across the hall to a closet, unlocked it and asked me how many copies I wanted. I said one. She asked me if these were for the library or just for myself. I told her they were just for me, and she gave me a copy of the brochure.
I then asked for a copy of the police log for the week of April 26. She said I would have to talk to her supervisor. I went into the office and asked Eric Hols, director of campus safety, for a copy of the log.
He said, "What, you mean like if there were any incidents reported?"
I said, "yes." He got up from his desk, left the room, and came back a few seconds later with a handful of papers.
"Well, we had nothing on April 26," he said.
"Nothing for that whole week?," I said.
"Well, nothing for the month of April," he said.
Hols said they had only five reported incidents between January and May. I was suprised to hear that an urban campus, even a small one, only responded to five incidents in a school semester. He showed me the reports for the spring and said I was welcome to peruse them. I thanked him, and proceeded to do so. He asked if I was a student, and I said I was. He asked if I was looking for something in particular, and I said no. He also asked if I was considering moving on campus, and I said I was not. I returned the records to him, thanked him and left.
Outcomes of disciplinary proceedings
On July 14 at 11 a.m., I attempted to get copies of the disciplinary outcomes from the Office of Residence Life. I went to the office of Carlton Sauls, director of residence life, and introduced myself. I told him I wanted copies of the outcomes of student disciplinary proceedings from the spring semester. He told me he was going to refer me to the vice president of student affairs.
"I've never had a request like this before," he said. "To be honest with you, I don't know exactly what the stipulations are and I don't want to give you any false information."
He was very polite. I went upstairs to the vice president's office and learned from her secretary that she was out for the day.
I telephoned Donna Patchett, assistant to the vice president for student affairs, on July 16 at about 11:30 a.m. I told her that Sauls had referred me to her.
I gave her my name and said I was calling to ask if I could obtain copies of the outcomes of student disciplinary proceedings.
"No, you can't," she said, raising her voice, "and would you mind telling me why you want access to this information?"
I told her that I was doing research on campus crime and discipline.
"We don't release the outcomes of disciplinary proceedings," she said.
I thanked her.
University of Maryland.
Campus crime statistics
The police department could be a model for other campus police stations to follow. The incident and arrest logs and campus crime statistics are available on the department's Web site. The building where the department is located is well-marked and there is free visitor parking outside.
When I visited the police station on June 18 at 11 a.m., I asked Cpl. Michael Wuenstel for the campus crime logs for the week of April 26. He could not find the physical logs, but showed me the logs on the department's Web site. I asked for a printout of the log, but he said he did not want to print it out because it would print out the log for the entire semester. However, the information is available on the Web at:http://www.umpd.umd.edu/pubinfo/index.htm
I then asked Wuenstel for the campus crime statistics, which he located for me online. When I asked him whether the statistics covered the academic year or the calendar year, he called one of the other officers, Lt. Don Smith, who said they covered the calendar year. Smith came into the front office to give me a copy of the university's "Safety and Security" brochure, which contains the campus crime statistics as well as information about the university police department.
Both of the officers were very helpful and courteous. They did not ask my name or my reason for wanting to view the crime logs or statistics.
Outcomes of disciplinary proceedings
On June 18 at 10:30 a.m., I asked Associate Director John Zacker for copies of disciplinary proceedings for the spring 1999 semester. He asked me who I was and I told him my name. He informed me that I would have to submit my request for access to the disciplinary proceedings in writing. I returned later that day and dropped off a request for disciplinary records citing the 1998 amendment to FERPA.
I called Zacker several times in the ensuing days and after he did not return any of my calls, I went to his office on June 24 at 2 p.m. to ask him what the status of my request was. He said he gave my request to the president's legal committee to look over. He added that the FERPA amendment made it legal for universities to provide access to disciplinary records, but did not require them to do so. I responded that the state open records law required the university to release the records, and Zacker said I would have to submit a separate open records request if I wanted my request to be considered under that law as well. I said I would and mailed an open records request letter to the office the next day.
I called Zacker on July 19 to find out the status of my request. He said his office would respond to my request by July 26-the deadline by which the university was required by law to comply. I called Zacker on July 28, and he said he was about to mail the disciplinary information to me. I asked if I could pick it up instead, and he said I could come in at any time.
On July 29, I went to the office and met with Zacker. He gave me a letter in response to my request. It included the names of two students who had been found guilty of a violent offense, the vague description of the offenses they committed (both were described only as "intentionally causing physical harm or apprehension of harm") and the university's sanctions against them. He said that it took a long time for the university to furnish me with the records because the FERPA definition of "'crimes of violence" and "nonforcible sex offenses' have yet to be defined by the U.S. Department of Education in pending FERPA regulations." Zacker said he had to consult with the attorney general of Maryland to determine which records he could release.
Although it took me more than a month to get the disciplinary records I requested from the University of Maryland's Office of Judicial Programs, Maryland was the only college we surveyed that supplied this information. It was somewhat surprising that at a university of over 36,000 students, only two students were found guilty of crimes of violence in disciplinary proceedings for an entire school semester. In addition, the information released gave little indication what the actual criminal behavior was; it could range from making a physical threat to sexually assaulting someone. Nor did it include dates or locations for the incidents or the date and duration of the punishment.
The only time I was asked what I would use the information for was after Zacker gave it to me. (He said he had to notify the students whose names he had released and wanted to be able to tell them what their information would be used for.) I explained to him that I was an intern at the Student Press Law Center and was conducting an access test.
Fall 1999, reports