Campus newspaper urges University of Nebraska to release student crime records

Thursday, December 7, 2000

When Josh Funk learned that a University of Nebraska fraternity
suffered sanctions for hazing last September, the Daily Nebraskan reporter solicited school
officials for student judicial records.

But school officials stymied Funk’s effort, saying such records were
not public. They cited federal and state laws — specifically the federal
Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and a state law modeled after it
— that forbid the release of student records to the public.

“I was kind of familiar with FERPA,” Funk said in a recent telephone
interview. “But I wasn’t sure how it applied in this situation.”

So he did some research and found that the law, also known as the
Buckley Amendment, did restrict the release of student educational records
without student consent. But Funk also learned that Congress in 1998 had
amended FERPA to show that records of crimes of violence and sex offenses
should not be considered educational records and could be released.

Funk responded with a broader request, asking for all disciplinary
reports involving crime on campus.

But school officials again refused to turn over the records, again
citing the state law that allows universities and colleges to withhold student
records from the public.

Now the Daily Nebraskan has
begun a campaign to get the records open, mainly through stories in the

“Our main concern is pursuing these records is safety,” said Funk, who
served as editor-in-chief of the Daily
last year and now reports on police and the courts.
“People should be aware of possible criminals and violence on campus,” he

University officials did not return calls this week seeking comment
for this story.

But in an Oct. 3 statement, Rosemary Blum, director of Student
Judicial Affairs, cited two exceptions to Nebraska’s public-records law in
rejecting the newspaper’s request.

“After careful review of the Nebraska open-records statute, as well as
the Federal Family Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), I can find no evidence to
support granting your request to view any university disciplinary records,”
Blum wrote.

The newspaper appealed the decision. But on Nov. 13, the state
attorney general’s office upheld the university’s decision, citing the same

But Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center,
says he thinks Nebraska officials are mistaken in their interpretations.
Goodman said the 1998 amendment to FERPA makes it clear that school officials
can release such records without fear of retribution under other provisions in
the act.

As for the state statute, Goodman says the law merely allows the
university to withhold the documents from the newspaper and the public. It
doesn’t, he said, expressly forbid their release.

“What it boils down to is, the University of Nebraska has no legal
prohibition,” Goodman said in a telephone interview. “They are choosing not to
release (the records).”

Goodman said that in the wake of the FERPA amendment, a few schools
responded by making such records readily available. But he said schools have
been more responsive to rules adopted last summer by the U.S. Department of
Education that outline how colleges and universities should handle such

“Definitely, schools are becoming more forthcoming with this kind of
information,” he said. “Unfortunately, not a lot of requests have been made or
been pushed.”

And that, he said, is why some schools, like the University of
Nebraska, continue to withhold records. But Goodman said he expects increased
and stronger efforts to get such records.

“I think we’ll see more open confrontations like this in the spring,”
he said. “And I anticipate that we’ll see more lawsuits in the future.”

But maybe not in Nebraska.

Although a lawsuit isn’t out of the picture, the students at the
Daily Nebraskan hope to resolve the
dispute either by winning the administration over with persuasion and strong
public outcry or by encouraging state lawmakers to overturn or revise the state

The students note, in particular, that a task force convened by
then-Interim Chancellor Joan Leitzel to study the university’s disciplinary
procedures recommended in 1996 “that the results of alleged student code of
conduct violations be made public on a regular basis, within the legal
restrictions imposed.”

And most legal restrictions, the students contend, have been

Funk said they hope to change the minds of university officials about
the records.

“But at this point, we’re just trying to get the issue out there,” he

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