Kent State opens some hearings; other schools increase access

Administrators at three universities around the country have pulled back the curtain of secrecy that protects students accused of crimes on their campuses. For different reasons, the school officials have said, in effect, “Let the sunshine in,” in their efforts to increase openness and public awareness of campus crime.After a January vote by the Board of Trustees of Kent State University in Ohio, campus judicial proceedings are now open to the public unless the victim or the accused requests that the hearings be closed.Rarely do institutions open their judicial proceedings voluntarily, and the move toward increased openness comes as the U.S. Department of Education is suing Miami University of Ohio and Ohio State to prevent them from releasing student disciplinary records.The change in student judicial policy alters the former practice of holding closed hearings unless the students involved request that they be open. The university’s coordinator of public affairs, R.P. Flynn, said, “This is a subtle change. We’re going as far as we can without breaking the law,” referring to concerns that the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as the Buckley Amendment, could be used to stop the school from opening the hearings any further.The editor in chief of the student newspaper, the Daily Kent Stater, recognized that spirit.”It hasn’t made much of a difference overall. It’s a nice gesture but little more,” said Jennie Griveas.But she was quick to note that Kent State, compared to most other universities, is considerably more open — especially with records. Alleged violators have allowed open judicial proceedings, which Kent Stater reporters have covered.”It boils down to one word: trust,” Flynn said, conveying his desire to ensure that students and victims can have confidence in their judicial system. Open proceedings are also a defense for the university to demonstrate that there is no bias in punishing offenders.Other members of the campus community welcomed the move toward increased openness to help deconstruct the attitude that universities use campus judicial proceedings as a tool to keep their reputation clean by finding perpetrators not guilty. Molly Merryman, director of Kent State’s Women’s Resource Center, observed, “Sexual assault survivors, who are informed students, are more likely to go through the process if it’s open …. The understanding and knowledge base break the cycle of coverups with closed judicial affairs.”Merryman said that, while the new policy does not change things much, it is a move away from the “climate of disbelieving the system when it’s closed.”Student journalists at Kent State were pleased with the decision to open the proceedings. Griveas commented, “It’s nice to see Kent State take a stronger action against FERPA, saying ‘We think these proceedings should be open.'”Yet Griveas expressed her hope that the university trustees would develop a more substantial policy. “In a perfect situation, we’d have access to all proceedings and records,” she said.For the time being, though, student reporters at the university consider themselves fortunate to be readily supplied with a considerable amount of information. The Kent Stater editor noted that they do receive records of campus crimes and the corresponding hearings, even if they do not have names.”For now, it could be a model to other schools in Ohio to follow, but even the model’s not perfect,” Griveas commented.In a greater step toward openness, one university has done away with student judicial proceedings altogether. Niagara University in New York has announced it will not adjudicate criminal charges against students; instead the school calls in the authorities to hold the students accountable.”Niagara lets students know when they come to the university that we will not be a sanctuary for anyone who chooses to participate in unlawful activity,” the vice president for student life, Sheila L. Hausrath, told the Buffalo News.In another move toward painting an accurate picture of campus crime, officials at Ohio University have altered the way that they statistically report rapes to include rapes disclosed to rape counseling centers and those that were reported by students to campus officials but did not occur on campus.The change applied to the statistics from 1996, revealing 33 reported rapes. Official reports for the previous year stated that no rapes were reported.By making that move, Ohio University joins the few other colleges in the nation that practice increased openness when reporting student rapes.The chief of university police at Virginia Tech, which practices a similar policy, explained the motivation for such public reporting.”If you’re honest with all members of your community, including the press, then things don’t come out and bite you,” Michael Jones told the Columbus Dispatch.