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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Greg Abbott files suit saying Texas was slighted in application for school funding; US Ed chief's hopefulness did not translate into cash
Friday, Sep 24, 2010, 02:17PM CST
By Mark Lisheron

Apparently the hopeful thinking of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was not sufficient collateral for Gov. Rick Perry in his quest to secure $830 million in federal funding for Texas schools.

State Attorney General Greg Abbott filed suit Thursday with the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, contending the U.S. Department of Education has been consistently wrong in rejecting the state's application for the school funding, according to a press release issued this morning by the governor's office.

The suit was filed hours after Duncan told reporters he was hopeful Texas could get federal money sometime in the future by applying again to the Department of Education and avoid laying off teachers. The department two weeks ago rejected an application that asked for a waiver from a requirement that Texas maintain its level of education spending through 2013.

The requirement, proposed by Texas' own U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, and passed by Congress, applies only to the state of Texas. In his release today, as he has said in the past, Perry called Doggett's amendment to the federal emergency education jobs bill unconstitutional and anti-Texas.

“Texas taxpayers are footing the bill for the education jobs fund, and Texas’ hardworking teachers deserve their share of that money,” Perry said. “Had the Congressional majority chosen to work for Texas schoolchildren and teachers, instead of playing partisan politics, this money could already be on its way to our school districts.”

In response to a request by Texas Watchdog, Doggett called the lawsuit an act of political theater by a governor whose alteration of the original application is the only thing preventing Texas from getting the federal emergency education funding.

"He knows what needs to be done to secure this aid; just sign the application form as he did on July 1, 2009," Doggett said in his statement. "This struggle is not about seeing that the State does not deny aid to education to local schools solely because they have received additional federal aid. The bottom line is this: Federal aid to education should actually aid education in our local Texas schools. It is almost as if the Governor felt he was entitled to his own blank check federal bailout and now he has the lawsuit to prove it."

The Department of Education has made promises that the $830 million will not be spent elsewhere and that Texas has until September 2012 to reapply for the money, according to Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for Duncan.

When asked by reporters if he thought Texas would actually get the funds, Duncan said, "I'm very hopeful they will. There's a huge need there. We desperately want to save jobs now."

Mark Lisheron can be reached at 512-299-2318 or at mark@texaswatchdog.org.

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