SOUTH CAROLINA – When newspaper editor Jennifer Stanley first heard that one of the school’s student leaders allegedly hit his girlfriend last fall, she wanted to find out more.
Not knowing the details or even when the alleged crime happened, Stanley, editor at the University of South Carolina’s student newspaper, requested the student’s disciplinary files.
Upon hearing the request, university officials told her they would release the information only when instructed to do so by the U.S. Department of Education.
With the passage of the 1998 amendments to the Higher Education Act, the university may have to give the paper what it wants.
“When we first got information on the law, we didn’t know exactly what it meant,” said Stanley, who oversees production of The Gamecock. “Hopefully, [the law] will open some doors.”
The impact of the new legislation and how it will effect public access to campus disciplinary records is an issue that will be resolved only with time. Collegiate journalists like Stanley are hopeful the new amendments will not only allow them more access, but also the opportunity to do a more effective reporting job.
Private means privacy
The new legislation also allows more access at private institutions than has previously been the case – specifically when it comes to campus police and security logs.
Kate Hilts is a freshman crime reporter for The Ithacan at Ithaca College in New York, a private school. Hilts said administrators use the privacy argument to deny access to crime information because they want to protect the interests of those involved – including themselves.
“Everyone worries about being sued now, but sometimes I think the crimes are mislabeled and covered up to protect the image of the institution,” Hilts wrote in an e-mail. “Statistics are items that are examined when students decide whether or not to attend that college, and bad or high numbers for certain crimes are looked badly upon.”
Hilts said the legislation has increased the frequency of how often her paper receives crime logs from the campus police. Prior to the law, she said, The Ithacan received crime logs weekly. Now they receive them every day.
While the law has helped to improve the system, it has not opened all the doors of access for Hilts.
“The only thing which still seems to be a problem is getting names of individuals who commit the crimes, and the results from judicial hearings,” she wrote. “The hearings on campus are still being kept a secret and the college has decided it will choose not to open up these records because the legislation does not make them.”
Because the school is a private institution, it claims it is not subject to state open records laws.
Jim Welch is the executive editor of The Defender Online, the electronic student newspaper at St. Michael’s College in Vermont. Welch said administrators at St. Michael’s, a private school, have a difficult time allowing access to certain school records because of their fear of breaking the law and because of student privacy issues.
“The one member of the administration who I have dealt with said the college is very concerned about being in compliance with the law,” Welch wrote in an e-mail.
“He was very concerned that disclosing this information would negatively effect the student who was suspended,” Welch continued. “He said that he wanted to be as fair to both the victim and the suspended student as possible. In his view, giving me the information would not have been fair to either party.”
The case Welch referred to involved a student who was suspended from the college for calling and harassing a gay student. Welch said he asked to view the disciplinary letter the administration gave the suspended student. The dean of students refused to comply on the grounds that the action was not a hate crime, but a case of harassment.
Disciplinary records are not required to be disclosed under the new law in either private or public institutions. Rather, public institutions can no longer protect them as education records.
While Welch may not legally have been entitled to the disciplinary records as a student at a private school, he said administrators need to be more willing to divulge information simply for the sake of accurate reporting.
“If the concern the administration has is fairness for all parties involved, then they should provide the student newspaper with the unbiased facts of the case,” wrote Welch. “Our job is to raise issues that are effecting our campus in the most fair and accurate way possible.”
Journalists and administrators can mix
At some schools, the confusion surrounding the new laws has led to discourse between school officials and student journalists. Stanley, at the University of South Carolina, said her university will be putting together a panel that will include herself, the newspaper adviser, student journalists, student government officials, teachers and administrators to discuss the impact of how the new legislation will effect disclosure.
Working together should help to improve an understanding of what the law means, Stanley said.
“We don’t really have anyone looking out for [the newspaper] that’s an expert,” said Stanley.
After meeting with school officials in December, Stanley said the university told her the disciplinary files on the student leader case were not accessible because they did not fall under the non-forcible sex offense and violence categories. Crimes in those two groups, as stated in the new law, would merit disclosure.
However, Stanley said officials would release the files if the newspaper requested them. According to Stanley, the case is now moot because the accusations brought forth against the student leader are apparently false.
“Having that disciplinary file would have helped us a lot in the beginning,” Stanley said.
Hilts, the Ithaca College journalist, said school officials held meetings with members of the security division on her campus to discuss the new laws.
Ithaca officials decided not to release the names of students involved in both campus court proceedings and campus crime logs, Hilts said.
“As a crime reporter, I talk to the Campus Safety officials a lot and have a relationship with them, but they still deny us the information,” wrote Hilts. “I wish there was some way to bridge this gap, but I truly feel here at Ithaca College we have tried many ways to do this. We have not been successful, though.”
Tarah Grant, the executive editor of The Ring-tum Phi at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, said school officials from her private college recently attended a forum on the new amendments. According to Grant, several representatives from the school, including the dean of students, the head of campus security, a journalism ethics professor and the university attorney, were all in attendance.
“We were hoping that the new amendments would move W & L toward full disclosure of campus crime,” Grant wrote in an e-mail. “After the forum, however, things don’t look any brighter. Everyone is aware of the new amendments, but nobody thinks it affects them.”