TEXAS — When Erin Cooper-Baize filed a public records request atTarleton State University requesting on-campus police reports, she neveranticipated it would land her alma mater a $110,000 fine six years later forfailing to report a number of crimes occurring from 2003 to 2005.
Tarleton State, located in Stephenville, Texas, was recentlypegged with the hefty fine by the U.S. Department of Education after a long-runningbattle between the department and the university. Student journalistsdiscovered a number of incidents – forcible sex offenses, assaults, drugviolations, burglaries – were excluded from annual crime data required by theClery Act, a federal law concerning the documentation of campus crimes.
In 2009, the department fined the university a total of $137,500for five violations, which Tarleton State appealed. In September 2010, an administrativelaw judge ruled the reporting errors were “unintentional,” taking into accountthe university’s misunderstanding of the requirements and its quick action tocorrect the issues. The judge reduced the fine to the maximum for a single violation,$27,500, finding that all of errors were part of a single report andconstituted only one violation.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan overturned that ruling June1, bumping the fine up to $110,000 – and leaving open the possibility thatTarleton will have to pay thousands more. He held that each unreported crime isa separate Clery Act violation.
“A single fine for issuing a crime report missing multiplecrimes is tantamount to sending the message to postsecondary institutionsthroughout the nation that regardless of whether your crime report omits one crimeor 101 crimes, the maximum fine is the same,” Duncan wrote in his decision.
The $110,000 covers three unreported forcible sex offensesand one robbery. Duncan also asked the Office of Federal Student Aid to set apunishment for the remaining 70 unreported offenses – raising the possibilitythat the total fine will be greater than what the department originallyproposed.
University spokesman Joe Feist said the next step in theprocess is “up in the air.”
“We are disappointed Secretary Duncan has reversed the ChiefJudge’s ruling and taken a stance that does not consider the context andmitigating factors,” Feist said in a prepared statement Wednesday. “TarletonState University is committed to providing a safe and healthy environment forour students, faculty, staff and visitors, and to full compliance with theClery Act.”
The decision comes six years after the initial reporting forthe story began, Cooper-Baize said Friday.
Cooper-Baize was a senior at Tarleton State when sheenrolled in Pulitzer Prize winner Dan Malone’s introductory media writingcourse and participated in the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas’ Light of Day Project.
Part of the project and course included teaching studentshow to use public records, a tool vital for all journalists, Malone said. Afterviewing the university’s Clery Act data, Cooper-Baize said she volunteered tolook deeper into the numbers to see if they matched the individual crimereports filed with police.
“When we got to the sexual assault data [on the report], wesaw there were none. Erin saw this and said ‘I don’t think this is rightbecause I know someone who was sexually assaulted in that time period,’” Malonesaid. “We discussed how students could double-check it and do an audit of whatthe university reported.”
But requesting the information was harder than she expected,Cooper-Baize said. Having never performed a Freedom of Information Act requestpreviously, she said she struggled with getting the request perfect to avoidloopholes.
“We actually had to fight with them to even get the requestdone,” she said. “They said they didn’t have to give us certain items and wehad to keep going back.”
After the university consulted the attorney general for theOK to release those items, Cooper-Baize finally received her information justshy of her graduation date. She graduated from the university in December 2006.
“Dan called me and said, ‘hey, all the information yourequested finally arrived. When you get a chance, come by my office and I’ll showyou,’” she said. “I was thinking it would be a couple hundred pages. When I gotthere, there was an entire file box that had been shipped from College Station…and an additional 50 pages were faxed. It was close to 2,000 pages ofinformation. ”
Cooper-Baize, along with students in Malone’s advancedreporting classes, sorted through the documents, making spreadsheets and notesof individual incidents, Malone said. In 2007, the students began writing. The story broke in the J-TAC student newspaper later that year.
“It was a combination of Erin getting the ball rolling andabout 10 other students’ work,” he said.
And now their work is finally seeing its close, Cooper-Baizesaid, noting she is amazed it has developed the way it has.
“I couldn’t even tell you what my expectations were when Imade that request, but I didn’t think it would have been near as big of a dealas it’s ended up being,” she said. “We were all completely shocked [when weheard of the first fine]. Dan called me and told me, and I said ‘it’s beenthree years. I can’t believe we’re still talking about it.’ Now, it’s beenanother three years … and that just floors me.”
Malone said he is proud of the students’ work and still usesit as an example in his classes, saying “their work and ideas have had adramatic impact.”
Though the university is disappointed in the recent fineincrease, Malone said a lot of good has come out of the incident. He noted amore transparent university, a new police chief and the formation of a Cleryoversight committee.
Cooper-Baize said the incident also helped her career, asshe continued reporting for six years following graduation.
“It was definitely advantageous to go in knowing, ‘hey,there is stuff that they’re required to give us, and it might take us a whileto get it, and we may have to fight for it, but they can’t not give us ananswer,’” she said.
But it’s still hard to see the university struggle, she said.
“I went to school there, so in a way it’s hard because it’smy alma mater, and it’s hard to see that happen to a school you have pride in,”she said. “On the other hand, I think it’s good the Department of Education isstanding up for students who have done six years of work because of this, butthey are showing other schools that this is an important issues and it’simportant for people to be informed.”
By Sydni Dunn, SPLC staff writer