SUNSHINE WEEK: SPLC open records audit examines suicide expulsion policies

A citizen’s right to know and journalists’ rights to report arethreatened every day, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned theweeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize theimportance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is marking SunshineWeek by requesting samples of college and university policies when dealing withsuicide threats and attempts from students on campus and in hopes that studentjournalists can encourage open government and use open records to expand theirjournalistic horizons and let the sunshine in.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In marking this year’s Sunshine Week, theStudent Press Law Center decided to take a critical look at college anduniversity policies when dealing with suicide threats and attempts.

The audit was inspired by an insightful study done by the Department of thePublic Advocate Division of the Mental Health Advocacy in New Jersey, titled”College Students in Crisis: Preventing Campus Suicides and Protecting CivilRights,” which highlighted blanket removal polices among colleges’ responseefforts.

Students who attempt suicide or make suicide threats on campus may beforced out of campus housing or out of school entirely in some cases. While manycolleges and universities’ state that students are not involuntarily removedfrom on-campus housing due to suicidal tendencies, student-housing handbooks orpolicies may include “involuntary withdrawal standards,” “imminent dangerwithdrawal,” “involuntary leave of absence” policies or “endangerment” clausesciting grounds for mandatory removal from campus housing if the student isdeemed a significant risk to themselves, others or school property. Theseseemingly innocuous policies can result in de facto removal for students whoattempt suicide.

In order to establish the transparency of public and private universitiesabout on-campus suicide policies, the SPLC sent out identical letters to 17public, 14 private, and two state-related institutions on Feb. 17, while studenteditors across the United States — from Indiana, Alabama, Colorado, Utah,Maryland and D.C. — have sent requests to their respective publiccolleges. Though private schools are not subject to open government laws, theywere surveyed to see whether they would voluntarily release information relatedto their students’ safety.

The request asked for information on all policies, regulations, proceduresor guidelines concerning the removal of students from campus housing and/orschool enrollment, on the grounds of suicidal tendencies or suicide attempts, aswell as all records showing the number of students actually removed from campushousing or campus enrollment as a result of violations of these policies.

Making an open records request is a challenge that may calls for greaterspecificity. While government officials cannot demand that you provide them withan exact document number, title or date – information to which only the recordkeeper may be privy – the law does require that you request the record in waythat “reasonably allows” the record’s custodian to locate itwithout going on an extended fishing expedition.

In some cases, however, responses will come back and say the request is toobroad, no matter how explicit the request may be. A response from George MasonUniversity cited that the request was too broad and would “clearly exceed$200.”

Although the amount that agencies can charge for open records retrieval mayvary by state, very few schools that provided documents or were willing toprovide documents required a substantial fee.

Other student editors encountered fee roadblocks thrown up byadministration. University of Iowa cited a $150 charge in addition to copyingfees of five cents per page. Weber State University in Utah cited a minimum of$135. These fees are a major hindrance in investigative journalism for alreadycash-strapped university newspapers.

Out of 35 schools, 23 responded to requests. No school responded with allrequested documents.

– Six public schools did not respond: Virginia Tech, SUNY Albany, City University of New York, New Jersey Institute ofTechnology and Drew University.

– Eight public schools are processing or reviewing requests.

– Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New Jersey, a privateuniversity, mailed in its student policies and procedures handbook. OswegoUniversity in New York and George Mason University in Virginia provided links totheir online student handbooks. University of Virginia responded withinformation regarding its suicide prevention program.

– Of the 14 private schools, 12 denied requests. Liberty University inVirginia did not respond and RIT partially responded.

The SPLC is still following up with these schools and collecting data forthis project. For full results, look out for the spring issue of theReport.