Two schools to release campus court records


Universities respond to new law that allows institutions to make information public





Private or public, federal law now permits colleges to release\ninformation from judicial hearings about students who commit violent\ncrimes or nonforcible sex offenses. Although many schools are\nrefusing to release this information, both the University of Mississippi\nand the University of Dayton have said they will release some\ndisciplinary information.

Amendments to the Higher Education Act passed by Congress in\n1998 changed the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of\n1974 -- a law that protects the confidentiality of student records\n-- to allow schools to release the names of students found guilty\nof committing violent crimes or nonforcible sex offenses in campus\njudicial hearings, as well as the crime the student committed\nand the action taken by the university.

At the University of Mississippi, the administration decided\nto release information about judicial proceedings for cases of\nviolent crimes or nonforcible sex offenses after summer discussions\nwith The Daily Mississippian, the student newspaper at the public\nuniversity.

Chris Thompson, the editor of The Daily Mississippian,\nsaid that during meetings with campus administrators, he and other\nmembers of the staff agreed to stop running a series of articles\ncovering a campus suicide.

Although Thompson did not say the newspaper made this decision\nin exchange for the university's promise to release campus court\nrecords, he said the newspaper agreed not to publish any more\nstories on the subject as a gesture to the administration for\nagreeing to release the results of certain judicial proceedings\nand for considering a limited opening of judicial hearings in\nthe future.

In retrospect, Thompson said, the newspaper should not have\nmade this decision in the presence of administrators.

"I don't think that we necessarily made the wrong decision\nby saying we weren't going to run stories on that, but I think\nit is a decision we should have made as a staff, away from the\nadministrators," Thompson said. "I think we shirked\nsome of our responsibilities as journalists for our administrators,\nand that's the part that bothers me a little bit."

Despite his regret over the newspaper's handling of the meetings\nprocess, Thompson said he thinks the more information released\nabout university judicial proceedings, the better it is for the\nentire campus.

"It's one way to ensure that the campus courts are fair,"\nhe said.

Thomas Wallace, the interim vice chancellor for student life,\nsaid the university agreed to release campus court information\nbased on the new amendments to FERPA.

"We discussed what did the law say and what we were able\nto do regarding the law," Wallace said. "That's really\nwhat we were dealing with here."

Wallace said the university has not decided whether to open\njudicial hearings entirely, but its attorney is currently looking\ninto it.

"[The Daily Mississippian knows] that we are going\nto do the things that we need to do to protect the rights of the\nstudents," Wallace said. "At the same time we are going\nto do what the law calls for, and they understand that."\n

But Thompson said the university was not eager to release the\nrecords.

"I think their preference is to have everything remain\nbehind closed doors, but they recognized our earnestness and our\nseriousness and felt obligated to comply, at least a little bit,"\nhe said.

In July, the University of Dayton became one of the first private\ninstitutions in the nation to adopt a policy allowing the release\nof judicial records in response to the amendments to FERPA.

After consulting with students and faculty-and pressure from\nlocal and campus media-the university decided to release the names\nof students found guilty of committing violent crimes and nonforcible\nsex offenses in the campus court.

William Schuerman, the school's vice president of student development\nand dean of students, said the University of Dayton decided to\nallow the release of disciplinary actions after administrators\nspent a semester meeting with student representatives and faculty\nmembers. Schuerman said the consensus of the group was to release\nthe information, but only if it is requested.

The release of such information will work to lend "institutional\ncredibility to our community," Schuerman said. "We will\ndisclose who it was, what they were found responsible for and\nwhat the penalty was."

Brad Eaton, the managing editor of The Flyer News, the\nUniversity of Dayton's student newspaper, said the paper has not\nbeen able to test the school's new policy yet because there have\nbeen no students found guilty of the necessary offenses.

But editor Molly Flynn said the policy to release judicial\ninformation means progress for the school.

"I think this is a small step towards a lot of things\nthat we have been having problems with in the past," Flynn\nsaid. "It's something that is really going to help us out\nin the future."

However, both Eaton and Flynn said they were frustrated by\nthe fact that the decision to release disciplinary information\nwas made over the summer.

They said they would have liked to have seen a copy of the\npolicy before it was passed and published in the student handbook.\n

Eaton said he is bothered by the wording of procedures to obtain\ndisciplinary records in the student handbook. The handbook says\nthat information can 'ordinarily' be released, which Eaton says\nis unclear.

"I am worried about the actual wording of this,"\nEaton said. "It just seems like there are a lot of built-in\nloop holes in this [policy] already"


reports, Winter 1999-2000