Tips for covering crime

What you need to know before your paper gears up to cover the disciplinary process at your college or university:

Familiarize yourself with how the system works. Check your school handbook for the code of conduct and an explanation of disciplinary procedures and policies. 

Do a feature story. Interview the administrators in charge, as well as those who act as advocates or judges. Interview students who have been accused of violating the code of conduct. No law prohibits them from talking.

Politely request the outcome of recent disciplinary cases. Under a 1998 amendment to FERPA, schools are permitted to release the final results for disciplinary cases against students found to have violated the school’s code of conduct by committing a sexual offense and any other crime of violence. 

If your oral request is denied, make it in writing. Ask for a formal response in writing that explains school policy on the release of such records.

If school policy is to keep such information confidential, research your state open-records law. Some states require public schools to release these records, while other states forbid it. Ask for the opinion of your state attorney general’s office and your state’s First Amendment coalition or press association.

Officially request that your school policy be changed. Follow the proper procedure to put a policy change consideration into motion. Seek the help of the student government or a faculty member (who can propose the change at a faculty senate meeting).

If unsuccessful in changing the policy, consider suing. Ask First Amendment lawyers if they believe the state’s open-records law is favorable in your state. Ask the SPLC, local news outlets or your state press association to help find a lawyer to represent you pro bono. Ask the Society of Professional Journalists’ Legal Defense Fund for a grant to help cover filing fees and other expenses.

Throughout the entire process, write stories regardless if you receive records or not. If you are successful, describe the information you received and detail the process you went through to get the information. If the school rejects your request, explain the administration’s reasoning. If the school says no such case occurred during that time period, do an investigation. Check your school’s crime statistics to see if there were sex offenses and other crimes of violence reported during that time period.  If so, see if those cases were turned over to local law enforcement. Ask if a student or non-student was charged or if the crime is still under investigation.

Set up a system in the newsroom. If a crime of violence or sex offense is reported in a campus police log, follow the case to its resolution. Create a list of unresolved crimes for the crime reporter that follows you and ask administrators for updates. Make a contact sheet and keep notes.

Source: Carolyn Carlson, SPJ