Crime on campus: Quit hiding the records

Tuesday, February 10, 1998


The Department of Education claims it is on the side of the nation’s college students. But actions speak louder than claims. More often, federal education officials side with university officials who would rather use discredited interpretations of the law to keep campus crime and
disciplinary information hidden from students, staff, parents, alumni, and
taxpayers.


Even though state supreme courts in Georgia and in Ohio have ruled that records about campus judicial proceedings can be released to the public, Education Department officials continue to insist that they are “academic records,” and therefore must be kept secret. Next week, they will go to federal court to fight the Ohio Supreme Court ruling, one that the U.S. Supreme Court itself declined to review.


Few people would oppose protecting the privacy of student records having
to do with academic performance, or medical and psychiatric information.
But students and their parents deserve and need access to information about
the campus judicial system, which routinely sits in judgment of a chilling
list of crimes, including rape, robbery, assault, drug deals and other felonies and misdemeanors.


An influential contingent of officials in the Department of Education does
not share that view, however. For many years, these officials have sided with the nation’s college and university officials to keep information about crime and punishment on campus a secret. That position is presented by Jamienne Studley, writing on USA TODAY‘s editorial page yesterday.


The department’s acting general counsel says that students already have all the information they need under the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act, which requires colleges to report crime statistics once a year. Unfortunately, that law doesn’t work very well, chiefly because many colleges and universities have played fast and loose with the statistics and because the department has not been disposed to enforce compliance very aggressively, if at all.


Students also are safeguarded, Studley writes, because educational institutions are required to issue “timely warnings” of certain crimes on campus. But the department’s regulations define both the crimes and “timely” so vaguely that college officials have the freedom to make those definitions themselves. Further, the department’s policy is to verify compliance only if there are complaints, but that isn’t likely to happen since students would have to know that crimes were committed in order to know whether they had received timely warnings.


The department’s lawyer also cites the fact that campus police reports now are available to students. No thanks to the Department of Education, which fought and lost that battle both in the courts and Congress. A federal judge even had to order department officials to stop sending letters to colleges threatening their funding if they observed the court decision making police reports public. Not until then-Sen. Tim Wirth, D-Colo., introduced legislation did the department come up with its own proposal.


Finally, Studley says that the American Council on Education, the lobbying organization for colleges and universities, claims that student victims are less willing to file complaints if they are not certain their names will be kept secret. The claim can be made. It can’t be backed up by empirical evidence. Nor does it seem to have been the case at the University of Georgia since those disciplinary records were opened. Nor does such a claim have any bearing on property crimes or drug offenses that don’t involve individual victims.


All of this adds up to a persuasive argument for public and press access
to campus disciplinary records. Access makes it possible to compare the
universities’ self-reported crime statistics with what’s actually happening
on campus. Access allows students to see whether crimes are actually punished. It ensures that student defendants’ rights are protected. And most important, access raises the profile of crime on campus so students can better protect themselves.


That just seems like common sense.


But the folks at the Department of Education prefer to battle for a balance between student privacy and student safety. This battle is not about privacy, however. Not when it’s the property, safety and lives of students that are on the line.


The folks at Education need to get out of court and go back to Common Sense 101.