Here’s to public records and transparency

25 November 2014

Campus judicial systems, operating in secret, often impose light sanctions for serious infractions: sexual assaults, physical assaults resulting in serious injuries, robberies and other violent crimes. Some of the punishment amounts to little more than writing a paper.

That’s the key finding of a months-long investigation by reporters at The Columbus Dispatch and myself. The system operates in secret, largely because of the federal student-privacy law that is frequently and improperly used to restrict access to the disciplinary records of students who are found responsible for amounts to a crime of violence. The fourth story in this series was published today.

Below is my desk drawer. This is only a small fraction of the public records that The Dispatch and I relied on for these stories (thankfully, the vast majority were provided digitally).

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We fought like hell for these records. Most were provided only after multiple requests. More than one set of documents arrived with their envelopes ripped nearly to shreds. And no surprise, we heard all manner of excuses for why records couldn’t be provided (among my favorites, explaining a six-month delay: “The university is currently closed due to ice.”). In the end, only 25 of the 110 colleges turned over the records we requested.

If you’ve read the stories, it’s clear why most colleges were reluctant to make the records public. They show a system that, operating in secret, has failed students and their families. Hopefully though, our stories also show why these records should be public, and why everyone — not just public record-savvy journalists with access to in-house legal help — should have easy access to these records.