SUNSHINE WEEK: SPLC open records audit examines suicide expulsion policies

A citizen's right to know and journalists' rights to report are threatened every day, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned the weeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize the importance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is marking Sunshine Week by requesting samples of college and university policies when dealing with suicide threats and attempts from students on campus and in hopes that student journalists can encourage open government and use open records to expand their journalistic horizons and let the sunshine in.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In marking this year's Sunshine Week, the Student Press Law Center decided to take a critical look at college and university policies when dealing with suicide threats and attempts.

The audit was inspired by an insightful study done by the Department of the Public Advocate Division of the Mental Health Advocacy in New Jersey, titled "College Students in Crisis: Preventing Campus Suicides and Protecting Civil Rights," which highlighted blanket removal polices among colleges' response efforts.

Students who attempt suicide or make suicide threats on campus may be forced out of campus housing or out of school entirely in some cases. While many colleges and universities' state that students are not involuntarily removed from on-campus housing due to suicidal tendencies, student-housing handbooks or policies may include "involuntary withdrawal standards," "imminent danger withdrawal," "involuntary leave of absence" policies or "endangerment" clauses citing grounds for mandatory removal from campus housing if the student is deemed a significant risk to themselves, others or school property. These seemingly innocuous policies can result in de facto removal for students who attempt suicide.

In order to establish the transparency of public and private universities about on-campus suicide policies, the SPLC sent out identical letters to 17 public, 14 private, and two state-related institutions on Feb. 17, while student editors across the United States -- from Indiana, Alabama, Colorado, Utah, Maryland and D.C. -- have sent requests to their respective public colleges. Though private schools are not subject to open government laws, they were surveyed to see whether they would voluntarily release information related to their students' safety.

The request asked for information on all policies, regulations, procedures or guidelines concerning the removal of students from campus housing and/or school enrollment, on the grounds of suicidal tendencies or suicide attempts, as well as all records showing the number of students actually removed from campus housing or campus enrollment as a result of violations of these policies.

Making an open records request is a challenge that may calls for greater specificity. While government officials cannot demand that you provide them with an exact document number, title or date - information to which only the record keeper may be privy - the law does require that you request the record in way that "reasonably allows" the record's custodian to locate it without going on an extended fishing expedition.

In some cases, however, responses will come back and say the request is too broad, no matter how explicit the request may be. A response from George Mason University cited that the request was too broad and would "clearly exceed $200."

Although the amount that agencies can charge for open records retrieval may vary by state, very few schools that provided documents or were willing to provide documents required a substantial fee.

Other student editors encountered fee roadblocks thrown up by administration. University of Iowa cited a $150 charge in addition to copying fees of five cents per page. Weber State University in Utah cited a minimum of $135. These fees are a major hindrance in investigative journalism for already cash-strapped university newspapers.

Out of 35 schools, 23 responded to requests. No school responded with all requested documents.

- Six public schools did not respond: Virginia Tech, SUNY Albany, City University of New York, New Jersey Institute of Technology and Drew University.

- Eight public schools are processing or reviewing requests.

- Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New Jersey, a private university, mailed in its student policies and procedures handbook. Oswego University in New York and George Mason University in Virginia provided links to their online student handbooks. University of Virginia responded with information regarding its suicide prevention program.

- Of the 14 private schools, 12 denied requests. Liberty University in Virginia did not respond and RIT partially responded.

The SPLC is still following up with these schools and collecting data for this project. For full results, look out for the spring issue of the Report.

news, Washington D.C.