U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s decision earlier this month to fine Tarleton State University $110,000 for failing to report many crimes, including sexual assault, proves the power of public access to government information.
Due to a former Tarleton State student’s open records request six years ago, the Texas A&M University System’s Stephenville school is more transparent, according to a story by the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.
Then a senior, Erin Cooper-Baize filed a public-records request asking for police reports. When she and other student journalists compared them with the official data put out by the university, they found that the school had failed to report more than 70 crimes such as forcible sex offenses, assaults, drug violations and burglaries from 2003 to 2005.
Those omissions were in violation of the Clery Act, which requires schools receiving federal aid to disclose certain crime statistics and take other steps aimed at keeping students safe.
Cooper-Baize experienced what many journalists do who attempt to obtain legally defined public information from government entities: Stonewalling.
“We actually had to fight with them to even get the request done,” she told the Student Press Law Center. “They said they didn’t have to give us certain items, and we had to keep going back.”
University officials appealed the $137,500 fine levied in 2009 by the Department of Ed and got the penalty reduced to $27,500.
But Duncan was having none of it. In his ruling overturning the decision by a Department of Ed administrative-law judge, Duncan wrote:
“A single fine for issuing a crime report missing multiple crimes is tantamount to sending the message to postsecondary institutions throughout the nation that regardless of whether your crime report omits one crime or 101 crimes, the maximum fine is the same.”
The ultimate size of the fine could rise because Duncan asked the Office of Federal Student Aid to decide the punishment for Tarleton’s other unreported crimes.
Today, Tarleton is a more transparent place, with a new police chief and a Clery oversight committee, said Cooper-Baize’s instructor, Pulitzer Prize winner Dan Malone.
Contact Mike Cronin at email@example.com or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.
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