Maryland journalists' fight for campus sexual assault records yields more (and less) than expected



Twenty years ago, Congress decided that colleges could no longer hide behind federal privacy law to withhold information when they determined that a sex offense had been committed on campus.

Knowing that serious crimes often are processed through secretive disciplinary channels outside of public view, Congress amended the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to say that the outcome of a disciplinary hearing is not confidential if the student is found culpable for conduct amounting to a crime of violence or a sex crime.

Colleges have been slow to get this message, however, and Exhibit A is the University of Maryland -- which for the better part of the last three years fought student journalists' attempts to report on the way rape allegations are investigated and punished.

It took a ruling from the state attorney general -- and even then, compliance took many months and a battle over jacked-up fees -- before the university agreed to comply with the Maryland Public Information Act and release the documents sought by student reporters from Capital News Service.

Now it's apparent why Maryland was so resistant to disclosure: Because the answer to the question "who has been punished for committing a sexual assault on campus" is "almost no one."

If the university's public-records production is complete, then only four students -- one of them a former Maryland Terrapins quarterback who transferred away in 2006 -- were punished by the school's Office of Student Conduct for sex offenses over the last 10 years, according to CNS. That is a remarkably low number for a school that enrolls more than 37,000 students annually.

Maryland's Clery Act report, a federally mandated snapshot of campus crimes, shows 105 forcible sexual assaults reported from 2006 through 2008 alone. So sexual assaults are happening, and are being reported, with some regularity -- certainly more than one every two-and-a-half years.

Undoubtedly, some offenders were punished through the criminal justice system and not the Office of Student Conduct, and in other cases the accused assailant quit school and left before disciplinary charges could be instituted. So the statistic of four cases ending in discipline over 10 years does not mean that the accused was cleared, or that charges were dropped, in every other instance.

But the statistic cries out for greater transparency. What, exactly, explains why only four cases ended with a finding of liability? What happened to the potentially hundreds of other reported attacks? What, if anything, does that say about the efficacy of Maryland's disciplinary mechanism?

It is a tribute to the persistence of Capital News Service journalists, and their supportive adviser, Sue Kopen Katcef, that the public now knows enough to begin asking the tough questions to hold UM accountable for how well it responds to complaints of sexual violence. It is a shame that their institution wasted legal resources in a pointless concealment battle that made such persistence necessary.

Tagged: FERPA, FOI, newsgathering, public records