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Ga., Mass. legislation may open crime records, improve coverage, experts say





One of Sharyl Covey’s first assignments as a reporter for her school newspaper, The Captain’s Log, was a story on sexual assault on the campus of her public college.

Covey, a senior at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., wanted to see if campus police blotters matched city police blotters when it came to sexual assaults and rape. 

She asked for a year’s worth of crime records on sexual assault, but after numerous phone calls to police aides, secretaries and finally chief officers, all Covey could obtain from campus police was a computer file of the department’s crime log for the past 60 days. 

City police, on the other hand, provided her with crime records within 24 hours of requesting them, she said.

Covey’s story, assigned in early January, was supposed to run in mid-February during the university’s sexual assault awareness week. She did not receive the campus crime log until the end of March.

“By the time I got the numbers, the story was not relevant,” she said.

Covey’s experiences illustrate the continuing struggle for access to campus crime information. 

A national study of campus crime reporting practices released in December 2005 found that colleges and universities comply with federal law “unevenly” and need further guidance on addressing sexual assault on campus.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Massachusetts and Georgia have pushed recently for greater access to campus crime information. A bill before the Massachusetts Legislature would make police departments at private schools in the state that have law enforcement authority subject to open records laws. A Senate vote on the Massachusetts bill has been postponed repeatedly.

The Georgia Legislature passed a bill along those lines in April; the legislation now awaits the signature of Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Campus police records at Georgia public universities are already public under the Georgia Open Records Act.

Students push for access

After encountering resistance from campus police officials, Covey started researching federal laws governing access to campus crime records, including the federal Clery Act.

The Clery Act, passed in 1990, requires private universities that accept federal funding to release some campus crime information, including statistics and a basic crime log.

“As I investigated more about the Clery Act, I felt more frustrated,” she said. “Even if I was not a journalism student, [the university is] supposed to have information available.

“It was disconcerting that I’m having trouble finding out information that we’re entitled to, especially with the school’s motto, ‘Students first.’”

Now, Covey’s sexual assault story has turned into a features article on the issues she is having obtaining information about campus crime.

Student journalists can often “get the ball rolling” when it comes to covering campus crime, said Dr. Heather Karjane, the gender issue coordinator for the Massachusetts trial court system.

Karjane was one of the chief researchers for the National Institute of Justice study that looked at the compliance of colleges and universities with federal laws requiring schools to disclose security and crime information.

“[Student media] can be an excellent watch dog,” she said. “But not everyone takes up the challenge.”

But when it comes to covering incidents of sexual assault, Karjane said the sensitivity of the issue and the hesitancy of victims to speak to reporters throws up “barriers.”

“Within the public awareness aspect of covering those barriers is how difficult it is to articulate any of these crimes,” she said. “They’re difficult to talk about for people who experience them and live through them.”

Confidentiality

Karjane also said legislation that makes campus crime information public record, like those in Georgia and Massachusetts, could “complicate” the issue of sexual assault reporting. Greater access could lead to less confidentiality for the victims involved, she said.

“The victim is often very concerned with who will know,” Karjane said. “[The victim thinks] ‘Will I not only be victimized but stigmatized?’ Confidentiality concerns are an enormous issue.”

But Carolyn Carlson, a Georgia State University professor who lobbied for the open records legislation in Georgia on behalf of the Society of Professional Journalists, said confidentiality concerns are a non-issue in her state.

Georgia public records law includes an exemption for sexual assault victims, and it is illegal for the media or the police to disclose the identity of a sexual assault victim unless the victims waive their confidentially rights, Carlson said.

“It’s a rare situation where [the identity] is made public,” she said. “ The only time I’ve known it to happen is at the initiative of the victim herself. While of course police have to issue information about the case, they don’t identify the victims.”

Carlson said while some people have concerns about publicizing a sexual assault, press coverage of campus crime is “extremely important.” Regular student press coverage is a way to “avoid victimization,” she said.

“To help the other women to learn about the dangers that lurk on college campuses, where one in four women are attacked before they graduate, they need to know what’s going on and what the situation is,” Carlson said. “It’s important that as much information about sexual assault be made as public as possible.”

Legislators push for access

The pending legislation in Georgia and Massachusetts is particularly noteworthy for press advocates because it would usher in unprecedented access to the crime records at private universities. 

A similar law was enacted in Virginia in 1994. But, as Karjane’s national study discovered, not every school complies with open records laws concerning campus crime. 

Covey’s difficulties in obtaining crime records and information from her public college police department illustrate the problem. She said she is considering filing a Freedom of Information Act request with her Virginia school.

At private universities, some campus police officials claim they are under no obligation to release incident reports that would be public record at a community police agency, even when the campus police have been delegated official police powers by a state or local law enforcement agency.

The language of the Georgia bill would change that: “Law enforcement records created, received, or maintained by campus policemen … shall be made available within a reasonable time after request for public inspection and copying.”

If the Georgia bill is signed into law, “it will make students safer and police departments more accountable,” said Daniel Carter, vice-president of Security on Campus, a non-profit organization that advocates for increased transparency in campus crime records. 

Carlson, the Georgia State professor, said the legislature’s approval of the bill is a “great step forward.”

If the bill is signed into law in May, Carlson said she would move to organize a workshop for both campus police and student journalists at the private schools affected by the law.

Perhaps a joint session would be the best way to acquaint campus security and student journalists with the new provisions, she said. 

“We want to do something to help people understand how to make use of the increased access,” Carlson said. 


Christopher Newport University, Georgia, Massachusetts, reports, Spring 2006, The Captain's Log, Virginia