Missouri university goes to court over release of disciplinaryrecords under federal act

MISSOURI — Call it deja vu. Sort of.

It was just about nine years ago that Traci Bauer, then-editor of the Standard, the student newspaper at Southwest Missouri State University, filed suit against her school after campus security officials refused to give the newspaper incident reports about an alleged rape involving a varsity basketball player.

The school claimed that the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as the Buckley Amendment, prohibited their release. In a landmark ruling a year later, a federal district court judge in Missouri found the school’s claims baseless and ordered the school to release the records immediately.

Now the battle is for access to campus court records. And once again SMSU looks to be ground zero.

Last month President Clinton signed legislation that clarifies that the Buckley Amendment cannot be used by schools to avoid releasing the outcome of campus disciplinary proceedings when crimes of violence are at issue. (See Shedding, page 4.)

On the day the law was signed, Patrick Nolan, the news assignment editor at the Standard, requested a copy of student judicial actions for 1997 through November 1998. He also asked for specific information on an assault that occurred in September.

SMSU officials balked, admitting they were unclear about how to respond to Nolan’s request given the new law. In late November they filed a petition in state court seeking clarification regarding whether they may release the names of students who have committed violent crimes on campus as well as statistical information about the student judicial system.

“We want to make sure that what we are doing with the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act we can do under the open records law,” Dean of Students Bob Glenn told the Springfield News-Leader. “We want the court to say, ‘Yeah, you are on track.'”

Federal law now explicitly allows schools to release information about the outcome of disciplinary proceedings – including names of students convicted – where the proceedings involve crimes of violence or non-forcible sex offenses.

“We believe that there is a greater crime rate on campus than is reported [by the school],” said Nolan of the Standard’s motive behind the request for school records.

The newspaper also wanted to answer questions regarding allegations of student rights violations during campus court proceedings, which would entail gaining access to campus judiciary documents.

Nolan, who was told by school officials that the case is “non-adversarial,” said his attorneys are in the process of filing reply briefs in the case. According to the editor, the school is concerned with student suits that may arise if they are not in complete alignment with FERPA.

“I’m inclined to believe it’s non-adversarial. I’m not inclined to believe they want to release the records, though,” he said.