SUNSHINE WEEK: Student Press Law Center celebrates Sunshine Week with open records audit of public universities

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the spirit of Sunshine Week, the StudentPress Law Center sent records requests to more than 100 colleges anduniversities around the nation seeking information about student disciplinaryprocedures. Approximately a month later, 27 of 95 public schools have providedall or most of the requested information. Sunshine Week is a national initiativeled by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to highlight the importance ofopen government and freedom of information.

Sunshine Week.

With the help of journalism students and instructors at the University ofWisconsin at Milwaukee, the University of North Texas and Humboldt StateUniversity, the SPLC sent out identical letters to 95 public and 20 privateinstitutions in early to mid-February. Some schools required an additional form.The request asked for the total number of complaints investigated by the studentdisciplinary body, the number of those cases resulting in various types ofpunishment, any breakdown by the nature of the complaints, data related tosexual assault complaints, and the number of cases referred to the studentdisciplinary body by the police. SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte said therequest focused on institutions’ internal disciplinary procedures becausein some cases these “mini-court systems” have evolved to deal withserious criminal complaints in near-secrecy.

“We decided to see what disciplinary records we could obtain, first,because we suspect there is quite a bit of confusion about the obligation todisclose some disciplinary information — or at least redacted statisticalinformation — and second, because we think it may be surprising to thepublic how many serious incidents beyond smoking in the rec room are handledthrough these non-criminal channels,” he said.

Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, institutions receivingany federal funding are not allowed to reveal students’ educationalrecords or personally identifiable information, other than directoryinformation, without prior written consent. The request was tailored to theSPLC’s interpretation of FERPA so no parts of the request could be denied onthose grounds. Though private schools are not subject to open government laws,they were surveyed to see whether they would voluntarily release informationrelated to their students’ safety.

Responses to the request ranged from numbered responses complete withcharts to no response at all. However, the largest group comprises the publicschools still processing the request. This includes schools that have providedperiodic updates by phone or e-mail along with those that provided anacknowledgment letter with no further response at this point. SPLC attorneyadvocate Adam Goldstein said these institutions are approaching the end of whatwould be considered a “reasonable” response time under moststates’ laws.

“Especially for the request we’re making, I’d besurprised if they couldn’t do it in a month,” he said.

John Osborn, a recent graduate who coordinated the Humboldt portion of theproject, said students who had never filed a request before found it morechallenging than they expected. He encouraged them to be persistent with theschool officials so the request could not be purposely ignored or inadvertentlylost in other paperwork.

“Every time they send you an e-mail and they give you whatever reasonwhy they’re not going to give you the records, push them on it,” hesaid.

Even with plenty of experience requesting public documents, Osborn couldnot anticipate how institutions would respond. He was surprised that schoolswithin the same state — and even state college system — responded tothe same request in very different ways.

“You would get a variety of different responses, for example, whenyou talk to Fresno State and when you talk to Sacramento State and HumboldtState,” he said. “They’re all in the same system, but theydon’t appear to be coordinated at all when it comes to how to handle thesekinds of requests.”

University of North Texas student Kerry Solan learned the same lesson ofpersistence. She said the project was a good way to become familiar with thevarious state laws, which was an advantage when university officials wereinitially hesitant to provide information. Though every state has some kind ofopen records law, the details — such as response timeframe, fees andavailable documents — vary from state to state.

“It’s important to head into these situations armed to the teeth with thenuances of the law and how far it can work for you,” Solan said.

The SPLC is still following up with these schools and collecting data for astory that will be published in the spring issue of the Report. To submit yourown records requests, use the SPLC’s letter generator. Use the OpenGovernment Guide from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to helpunderstand the varying state laws. Here are some of the preliminaryfindings:

– Of 95 public schools, 27 responded with all requested documents, ornearly all with specific reasons for not providing certain parts. Forty schoolsare still processing the request.

– Fourteen public schools did not respond at all by March 5, when the SPLC gathered preliminary results: the University of Mississippi, the University of Oklahoma, Louisiana State University, Eastern Kentucky University, the University of Alabama, Fresno State University, University of California at San Diego, College of the Redwoods, the University of Oregon, Montclair State University, State University of New York-Albany, University of New Hampshire, North Carolina State University and the University of the District of Columbia.

– Five public schools denied the request. The University of Delaware deniedthe request because universities are exempted from the state open records law.Temple University, in Pennsylvania, also provided information about why it isexempt from the state open records law.

– Three schools cited FERPA as a reason to withhold some or all of theinformation: the University of Kentucky, the University of Texas and SacramentoState.

– Institutions with no central office for dealing with records requestsfrequently sent requesters through a maze of departments, or simply replied thatthe office did not maintain those records. Very few schools that provideddocuments required a fee. The University of Maryland did not respond until asecond letter and then said the documents would cost $653.51. The University ofGeorgia said it would cost $136.

– Nine of 20 private schools, which are not subject to open records laws,did not respond at all. Of the 11 that did respond, six provided links orinstructions to find some of the requested data online.

– Of four Ivy League schools surveyed, only Yale University responded atall. Yale provided a link to extensive information on the university’s Website.

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