South Dakota student journalists struggle to get information about campus lockdown

SOUTH DAKOTA — A residence hall at South Dakota State University went on lockdown for about 45 minutes earlier this month, but student journalists say campus police have stymied their attempts to obtain and report any additional details about the incident.

South Dakota State University’s police department received a call about a man with a gun in one of the school’s dorms around 11 p.m. Sept. 12, The SDSU Collegian reported. Officials with campus police told the paper at the time that the incident remained under investigation, and they declined to provide reporters with an incident report. Instead, the students at the Collegian obtained basic information about the incident from Bob Otterson, SDSU’s executive assistant to the president — but it should not have come to that, the paper said.

“If the investigation into the matter is still ongoing, fine. We’re not here to obstruct justice in this matter. When more details of this story emerge, we’ll be happy to report them,” the Collegian wrote in an editorial printed Sept. 18. “But students should have the very basic facts on this already and the fact that they do not is pretty embarrassing.”

Collegian Editor-in-Chief Marcus Traxler said Wednesday he still has not received the incident report. When the reporter visited university police three business days after the incident occurred to see the daily crime log entry, the incident had not been added, Traxler said.

The Jeanne Clery Act requires schools that receive federal funding to comply with several campus safety requirements, one of which is maintaining a daily crime log detailing incidents from the past 60 days. The log must be available during business hours, and log entries older than 60 days must be made available within two business days of the request. The act also requires incidents to be entered in the log within two business days after they were reported.

“We’ll keep trying until we get something, but it’s really a shame that they don’t have an interest in helping the public in this instance and in following the law,” Traxler said. “They did not release an incident report and I imagine we’re not going to get a look at that unless charges are filed. It’s hard to say if that will happen or not.”

In 2010, a Department of Education review revealed that South Dakota State had not properly complied with several aspects of the Clery Act, including such errors as failing to properly classify and disclose crime statistics and inaccurately reporting such information to the Department of Education. DOE charged the school with updating its campus security report statistics, as well as revising the police department’s policies and procedures.

Police provided the log information to the Collegian on Friday, six business days after it was first reported, and the paper’s adviser has since met with department officials and discussed how police will respond to the Collegian’s future information requests, Traxler said.

The log entry indicates the weapon was an air pistol and shows the case was “referred judicial.” Otterson told the SPLC and the Collegian the police file was sent to the state’s attorney, but a legal assistant at the Brookings County state’s attorney’s office said Wednesday that the office had not yet received any information about the incident.

The university declined to release the police report to the SPLC, citing an exemption in the state’s open records law, which says records developed or received by law enforcement agencies and other public bodies that have investigative duties are not open to public inspection.

The state of South Dakota does not have case laws on the books applicable to that exemption, which makes it difficult to determine whether it applies, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Open Government Guide. The exemption for law enforcement agencies and other laws on confidential criminal justice information could lead to different interpretations, the website says. Also, the statute does not distinguish between open and closed investigatory records.=”#sthash.qf9mlzn8.dpuf”>

Kenneth Bunting, the executive director for the Missouri-based National Freedom of Information Coalition, said Wednesday in an email that South Dakota State’s decision not to release information from the report to the public is contrary to the purpose of campus safety laws.

“The Clery Act was intended to keep colleges and universities from sweeping safety and security issues under a rug,” Bunting wrote. “And state and federal public disclosure laws are intended to make all public agencies more accountable and transparent. But when investigative exemptions are stretched to convoluted heights … university officials are guilty of practicing a shamefully irresponsible dodge that clearly does not serve the public interest.”

Traxler said the Collegian likely would not have known any details of the incident without Otterson’s help, and more than two weeks later, South Dakota State students still seek answers about what happened that evening and who is responsible.

“Any member of the public should be able to walk up to their office and be able to look at (the information,) especially when you consider students care about their safety and their parents care about their safety,” Traxler said. “(Police) are ignoring the law in this instance and it’s really unfortunate.”

By Samantha Vicent, SPLC staff writer. Contact Vicent by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.