There are a number of factors that make reporting on sexual assault and harassment on campus a difficult feat for student journalists.
Administrators refuse to release important records to the public, hiding behind the veil of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, even though open-records laws permit redactions for privacy.
Many students express discontent with the ways their schools handled their cases, resulting in Title IX complaints to the U.S. Department of Education, which is both secretive and slow-moving, so that tracking the progress of an investigation is near-impossible for an outsider.
Campus climate surveys show that issues such as sexual assault, gender discrimination and intolerance are of widespread concern among college students.
Without access to the records produced by universities, schools and the Department of Education, there is little journalists, much less the public, can do to make sure that these public institutions are doing everything they should to make campuses safe.
The National Women’s Law Center cited such concerns in a Freedom of Information Act complaint against the Department of Education on June 12. The lawsuit was filed in response to DOE’s failure to provide records requested in January.
In the complaint, the center said DOE neglected to respond appropriately to their request for documents pertaining to all pending sexual harassment cases before the Office of Civil Rights.
This included any documents recording the results of investigations into Title IX violations, compliance reviews and findings of fact made in a span of a few months before the request was made.
While many student journalists take the approach of requesting information about individual universities and cases before being stonewalled by administrators, the NWLC is pursuing more general records that still paint a picture of each campuses’ compliance.
Alexandra Brodsky, a Skadden Fellow at the center, said any concerns about individual privacy would not pertain to their request because the documents NWLC is seeking – a list of schools with violations, and the resolution agreements or findings of fact in those investigations – generally would exclude descriptions of the complainants or identifiable details about their cases.
“FOIA also allows for them to redact any information that would pose a threat to individual’s safety and privacy,” Brodsky said. “They have not said that they are withholding documents because of those concerns.”
Brodsky said the NWLC wants to use these documents to hold schools accountable and to better inform their clients about their legal prospects.
Schools are required to publish an annual Clery Act statistical report, which is supposed to be a minimally detailed account of all of the crime that is reported on campus.
However, issues with reporting on campus, including cases of administrators ignoring students complaints, can sometimes make this report an inaccurate depiction of the campus’ safety. And those reports involve only behavior that could equate to a crime, meaning that acts of sexual harassment (such as a professor pressuring a student for sex) are not counted.
The FOIA’d documents detailing the efficacy of a school’s investigation and response process can paint a more complete picture of what discrimination and threats many female, LGBTQ and minority students face on campus.
The day after the NWLC’s complaint was filed in U.S. district court in the District of Columbia, the Department of Education began sending records. And while the center waits to see the full scope of the way the current administration has been holding schools accountable, Brodsky encouraged students to reach out if they need help effecting change at their schools.
“We think that student organizing is one of the most effective ways to push schools to appropriately handle and report the sexual harassment,” Brodsky said. “Regardless of whether the Department of Education is doing its job, we are.”