New Tenn. law requires campus crime disclosure

TENNESSEE — A new state law requiring public colleges and universities to release certain campus crime information will take effect July 1, allowing student journalists to better report on campus crime across the state.

The law, co-sponsored by state Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, and state Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, amends the Tennessee Open Records Act to force public colleges and universities to disclose three categories of student disciplinary records.

The first is the results of campus disciplinary proceedings in which a student is accused of a violent crime or a nonforcible sex offense. Schools must disclose the results of such proceedings to the victim of the alleged crime. The information is also available to the public, but only if a school finds that the accused student committed the offense in question. In all cases, a school can only disclose the name of a victim or of a witness with the written consent of that individual.

The second category of information is available to the public and makes universities reveal which students are registered sex offenders.

The final type of required disclosure involves any alcohol or drug violation committed by a student under the age of 21. That information is only available to the parents or legal guardian of that student.

Lawmakers and campus crime disclosure advocates hope the amendment will lead to safer campuses at colleges and universities in Tennessee.

“[The law] will allow campus communities to better protect themselves from becoming victims of crime, and it will allow the members of the campus community to know how people are treated by the schools when they violate the school’s disciplinary code,” said Carolyn S. Carlson, vice chairwoman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ subcommittee on campus crime.

Tennessee lawmakers have persistently pursued the measure. Brooks and Burchett co-sponsored a similar bill last year. That bill was passed by the General Assembly and was signed by the governor in May.

But state Attorney General Paul Summers issued an opinion shortly thereafter saying the law as written allowed, but did not require, disclosure, despite the intent of the legislation’s co-sponsors.

Brooks and Burchett modified the language of the original law and reintroduced the reworded legislation to the General Assembly in January 2004. Both houses of the General Assembly passed the bill, and Gov. Phil Bredesen signed the measure into law March 12.

The co-sponsors are delighted that the law will finally be enacted as they originally intended.

“I think the law will increase the safety [on campuses] because the perpetrator now will have his or her name made public. [There will be] no more of this business of cloaking an offense under the guise of administrative hearings,” said Brooks, a former adjunct professor.

The state law demands disclosure of information only as permitted under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA, also known as the Buckley Amendment, protects students from unauthorized disclosure of their educational records. In 1998, Congress amended FERPA to allow disclosure of the outcomes of campus disciplinary proceedings when students are found responsible for violent crimes and nonforcible sex offenses. 

The Tennessee law goes one step further than the 1998 FERPA amendment by requiring schools to disclose the information, instead of just giving schools the option to do so. The Tennessee law will retroactively apply to disciplinary actions that occurred after FERPA was amended in 1998. 

Tennessee is not the only state with such a provision; many other states require disclosure through their respective open-records laws, although the language may not be as explicit as that in the new Tennessee law. 

At the federal level, the U.S. House of Representatives is considering another amendment to FERPA that will improve victims’ access to the final results of student disciplinary hearings by requiring the release of certain information to the victim of a violent crime or nonforcible sex offense. But House Bill 3097 has been stuck in the House Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness for months, and movement on the measure sometime soon seems unlikely.

Carlson hopes that all states will follow Tennessee’s lead and enact similar legislation.

“[Such laws] will give [campus community members] a better understanding of and trust in the school’s disciplinary system and will allow those who are accused to have fairer treatment,” she said.

LAW: Tenn. Code Ann. section 10-7-504