in Houston, Texas
Tarleton State fine over underreported campus crime a lesson in power of public information
Tuesday, Jun 12, 2012, 10:18AM CST
By Mike Cronin
Tarleton logo

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 mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Penn State case highlights Clery Act, aimed at transparency in reporting of campus crime
Tuesday, Nov 15, 2011, 12:06PM CST
By Jennifer Peebles
magnifying glass

Like many of our Texas Watchdog readers, I have been deeply troubled over what has transpired at Penn State University.

Penn State is far from Houston, but what happened in this case has ramifications for colleges and universities all across the country, including here in Texas.

For one thing, Penn State is now being investigated by the federal Education Department for possibly having violated the Clery Act, a federal law intended to prevent higher education institutions from sweeping criminal acts under the rug.

The Clery Act -- and how, even years after its implementation, universities continue to try to get around it and not fully report cases of sexual assault -- was an important part in an investigative series last year by the Center for Public Integrity and National Public Radio. Texas Watchdog helped CPI on one installment of that series, a case focusing on Texas A&M. I was honored to work with two such prestigious news outlets, and I was proud to have played a small role in a series that won a Peabody Award, a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and a Dart Award.

Unlike the Penn State cases, in which a university official (or, later, a retired university official) is alleged to have sexually assaulted children, the cases recounted in the Center for Public Integrity/NPR series were cases in which female students of those universities were sexually assaulted by male students.

But I think the Department of Ed’s announcement that it would look into Penn State shows that these are not apples and oranges situations. Whether the victims were children or adults, male or female, their assaults are against the law. Period. And universities have a duty to tell the truth about crimes alleged to have occurred on their campuses -- and if that’s not enough to ensure their honesty, federal law should be.

Whether or not the Clery Act is followed is not some arcane argument over some law most people have never heard of. It could be your son or daughter’s life or well-being that it affects.

Look no further than Tarleton State University, right here in Texas, where the university had seriously underreported crimes on campus a couple of years ago. That case was only brought to light thanks to the hard work and diligence of Dan Malone, the Pulitzer Prize winner and former Dallas Morning News reporter, and his journalism students at Tarleton State, who combed through public records to get at what was really going on. Their investigation caught the attention of the Department of Education, which socked Tarleton State with a huge fine (initally $137,500, later reduced to $27,500). Their work was part of the Light of Day project put on by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a great organization for which I am honored to serve on the board.
 
***
Contact Jennifer Peebles at jennifer@texaswatchdog.org or 281-656-1681. Follow her on Twitter at @jpeebles or @texaswatchdog, on Google Plus or on Facebook.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of magnifying glass by flickr user rocketsareneat, used via a Creative Commons license.
Tarleton State students, teachers barred from requesting school's public information as part of journalism class
Thursday, Dec 02, 2010, 11:20AM CST
By Steve Miller
reporter's notebook

It’s a crucial learning tool but one that in Texas can cost a professor his job: a Tarleton State University journalism instructor wanted to teach students how to file an open records request and directed them to try it out their own institution.

 

That's what’s going on at Tarleton State University where the professor, Dan Malone, asked his students to file a public records request to the school, part of the Texas A & M University System.

 

But A&M lawyers have advised that the class project is off-limits and that faculty members can be fired or at the very least disciplined for suggesting students file Texas Public Information Act requests to obtain records from Tarleton State or any of the system's 11 other universities and seven state agencies.

 

According to the Associated Press story:

"Andrew Strong, general counsel for the A&M System, said under a system rule, a faculty member can't direct students to submit a public information request to Tarleton or any other member of the A&M system.

'The relevant System regulation provides that an employee may make requests to a system institution such as Tarleton only in the individual's capacity as a private citizen, not within the individual's capacity as a university employee,' Strong wrote in an Oct. 27, 2010, letter to Tarleton President Dominic Dottavio. 'A faculty member's directive to a student in his or her class is an action within that individual's official capacity as a Tarleton employee.'"

Strong told The (Bryan-College Station) Eagle that the scenario of filing information requests creates unnecessary work for other employees.

 

"It would be analogous to an employee in the physical plant creating a bunch of work because he's cutting all the bushes down and people now have to go back out and replant the bushes," Strong told The Eagle. "It's the ability of the administration to control and direct its own employees. ... It's the avoidance of a lot of work."

 

In his annoyance at producing public records, Strong reminds us of the city official in Arlington who complained that the open meetings act is “always hanging over our head.”

 

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

 

Photo of a reporter's notebook by flickr user sskennel, used via a Creative Commons license.

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