College won’t give you public records about crime? Maybe it’s because … crime, what crime, we didn’t see any crime.

This morning, I learned that Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina is being investigated by the State Bureau of Investigation after city police discovered at least 126 reports of crimes since 2007 that campus police failed to investigate, including 18 reports of sexual assaults.

When I saw the news, I was immediately reminded of a series of public-records request that I and others at the SPLC have made in the past few months. We’re seeking to gauge how easy it is for student journalists and others to get access to public records about campus safety, and we’ve placed requests with dozens of schools across the country.

We’re also interested in learning more about the efforts individual schools take to comply with the Clery Act, the campus safety law that nearly all colleges are required to follow. We sent requests to some colleges selected purely at random, but we also sent targeted requests to some schools that reported remarkably low numbers of crimes.

Elizabeth City State University was one of those schools, which I picked out after learning it reported zero on-campus sexual assaults over the past 11 years. My request was for a variety of records — copies of annual security reports issued for the past two years, the names of students found responsible for crimes of violence, copies of confidentiality policies and records showing how the school compiles the annual report.

Nearly two months after my initial request, Elizabeth City State has provided only some of what I requested — annual reports and confidentiality policies. My requests for documents showing how the school compiles its annual report appear to have been overlooked, and my request for names of students found responsible for crimes of violence was denied, citing (incorrectly) the federal privacy law, FERPA. The school’s assistant general counsel, Alyn Goodson, informed me today that the school was working on processing my request for the remaining items and would be re-evaluating its decision to deny my request for names.

Among the lessons I’ve learned from this process:

  • Pay close attention to your instincts, and investigate further whenever something doesn’t pass the smell test. When I looked at the statistics that Elizabeth City State University has reported to the Department of Education since 2001, they seemed very low. The latest news from regarding the unexamined crimes shows that suspicion was well-founded, and that potentially dozens of crimes have occurred that were never included on the school’s annual reports.
  • Be persistent when requesting public records. The university’s first response to my request ignored several sets of documents I had requested. There are often innocent explanations for this, and many public officials are only too happy to take another look at your request — but you have to ask them to do so. On second review, I have received substantially more records from many of the schools we have sent requests to.
  • When records are denied, ask for the exemption in the state public records act that allows the documents to be withheld. When we have requested the names of individuals found responsible for crimes of violence or nonforcible sexual offenses, many schools have denied the request, citing FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA actually does not prohibit of this information, something we have found few schools seem to be fully aware of. See 20 U.S.C. Sec. 1232g(b)(6)(B). In any event, the obligation to disclose the records is under your state’s public records law, not FERPA. In many cases, the schools we have worked with have come back and decided to release the names. In the remaining cases, once I know why the school believes they do not have to provide the records, it makes it easier for us to know how to challenge the release.

The Elizabeth City State University example also highlights another lesson that is useful for student journalists to keep in mind: The allegations that ECSU police failed to investigate crimes for years only came to light after a student spoke up. Public records requests are a useful tool in learning more about whatever it is you are writing about, but it doesn’t beat on-the-ground reporting. Student journalists are in a unique position to cultivate sources with fellow students who have personally experienced campus crimes and the university’s response to their reports — good or bad. Their stories provide the context for the numbers and documents you receive elsewhere.

If you or your staff are interested in learning more about covering campus crime, check out the SPLC’s definitive guide, Covering Campus Crime. If you want to look at your school’s compliance with the Clery Act, our 10-step guide can help you get started.