Smoother sailing for campus crime reporting

Violence and crime are not the norm at the University of Hartford.\nBut in late January, one party got out of hand, and a few students\ndrew handguns in anger. Local television stations and campus news\norganizations scrambled to cover the story, only to be told by\nthe university’s public safety office that the information surrounding\nthe incident was privileged.

The university said it was complying with The Family Education\nand Privacy Act (FERPA), also known as the Buckley Amendment,\na federal law that allows penalties for schools that release students’\nrecords without their permission. Colleges and universities have\nused the law to keep important information from the press for\nyears.

But in 1998, Congress recognized the danger of allowing schools\nto cover up campus crime. It passed amendments to the Higher\nEducation Act that required schools to release campus police incident\nlogs and allowed schools to release information about students\nwho had admitted or been found guilty in a campus disciplinary\nproceeding of committing a violent crime or a nonviolent sexual\noffense.

Universities have been slow to react to these changes. Many campus\nmedia organizations continue to report that campus police still\nrefuse to release records. One of the problems is that the Department\nof Education has not yet drafted regulations for schools that\nexplain how to comply with the changes. Universities are using\nthis as an excuse to not follow the law. Negotiations within\nDepartment of Education committees are currently taking place\nto solve this problem.

But at the University of Hartford, the campus police complied\nwith the changes without direction from the Department of Education.\nAfter pressure from local television stations and The Informer,\nHartford’s student newspaper, public safety caved in.

One week after the handgun incident, the campus public safety\noffice produced a public log documenting the description, date,\ntime and location of every crime committed on campus. Frank Musero,\nThe Informer’s editor, says the paper has had no problems\nin obtaining information from the campus police since they made\nthe police log open to the public.

“The school has been very cooperative in releasing information\nwe request,” Musero says.

Other schools have been leading the way in adhering to the 1998\nHigher Education Act amendments. At the University of North Carolina\nat Chapel Hill, university police took the initiative to figure\nout how to comply with the amendments. University police there\nwere already reporting all on-campus crimes in a public record.

At other schools, however, it has been the campus newspapers that\nhave been the aggressors in getting the police to comply with\nthe amendments. At the University of Dayton, the policy had been\nto bar the school paper, The Flyer, from access to any\nrecords relating to students, including those of campus police.\nBut after continued pressure from The Flyer and local\ncommercial news organizations, this policy may be slowly changing.

“For years, [campus police] used FERPA as an excuse to not\nrelease records, now they are using student privacy as the reason,”\nJeff Brogan, The Flyer’s editor, says.

Brogan says that in light of the recent Higher Education Act amendments,\nthe school may be changing its policy about releasing disciplinary\nrecords regarding crime. A council made up of students and administrators\nis examining the university’s policies regarding the release of\njudicial proceeding records.

At first, Brogan says, the council was leaning towards recommending\nthat the school maintain its “no disclosure” policy.\nBut after Brogan convinced the school to let him present his\nargument to the council, it changed its view. It is now leaning\ntoward recommending to the administration that personally identifiable\ninformation from the results of disciplinary proceedings be released.\nThere has been no change in its policy on releasing police reports.

“We have made progress in that they’ve let us give our opinion,\nbut where we go from here is a whole different story,” Brogan\nsays.

Brogan says, he is optimistic that the school will change its\npolicy toward more access.

And he believes more access will, in the end, lead to more safety.\nThe issue of safety is what is at the core of this debate, Brogan\nsays.

Daniel Carter, vice president of the nonprofit advocacy group\nSecurity On Campus, says the safety of students is the driving\nforce behind the recent legislative changes in reporting campus\ncrime.

“Campus police and security can’t be everywhere,” he\nsays. “Students have to be informed in order to protect\nthemselves.”

At the University of Dayton, Brogan says students are realizing\nthat their rights are not being violated by allowing more access\nto campus security records. Along with commercial news organizations,\nthe University of Dayton student body has been supportive of The\nFlyer in getting the school to change its policies.

“If we are to make this community safer, students are starting\nto realize that more information needs to be released,” Brogan\nsays.

But for the most part, student newspapers on campuses where the\nHigher Education Act amendments are already being followed are\nnoticing the difference.

“More information is available to us; instead of having\nto try to dig up details ourselves, we can just look it up,”\nMusero says about the University of Hartford.

He says the open records make it impossible for the campus police\nto hide information from student reporters. They are now confident\nthat incidents are not being covered up.

But Carter says support from students, news organizations, and\neven court cases is not enough. Until the Department of Education\nclarifies what schools need to be doing to comply with new regulations,\nhe says, universities will still try and block access to student\nrecords.