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Campus newspaper urges University of Nebraska to release student crime records

By Phillip Taylor
Special to
The Freedom Forum Online

12.07.00

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When Josh Funk learned that a University of Nebraska fraternity suffered sanctions for hazing last September, the Daily Nebraskan reporter solicited school officials for student judicial records.

But school officials stymied Funk's effort, saying such records were not public. They cited federal and state laws — specifically the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and a state law modeled after it — that forbid the release of student records to the public.

"I was kind of familiar with FERPA," Funk said in a recent telephone interview. "But I wasn't sure how it applied in this situation."

So he did some research and found that the law, also known as the Buckley Amendment, did restrict the release of student educational records without student consent. But Funk also learned that Congress in 1998 had amended FERPA to show that records of crimes of violence and sex offenses should not be considered educational records and could be released.

Funk responded with a broader request, asking for all disciplinary reports involving crime on campus.

But school officials again refused to turn over the records, again citing the state law that allows universities and colleges to withhold student records from the public.

Now the Daily Nebraskan has begun a campaign to get the records open, mainly through stories in the paper.

"Our main concern is pursuing these records is safety," said Funk, who served as editor-in-chief of the Daily Nebraskan last year and now reports on police and the courts. "People should be aware of possible criminals and violence on campus," he said.

University officials did not return calls this week seeking comment for this story.

But in an Oct. 3 statement, Rosemary Blum, director of Student Judicial Affairs, cited two exceptions to Nebraska's public-records law in rejecting the newspaper's request.

"After careful review of the Nebraska open-records statute, as well as the Federal Family Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), I can find no evidence to support granting your request to view any university disciplinary records," Blum wrote.

The newspaper appealed the decision. But on Nov. 13, the state attorney general's office upheld the university's decision, citing the same exceptions.

But Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, says he thinks Nebraska officials are mistaken in their interpretations. Goodman said the 1998 amendment to FERPA makes it clear that school officials can release such records without fear of retribution under other provisions in the act.

As for the state statute, Goodman says the law merely allows the university to withhold the documents from the newspaper and the public. It doesn't, he said, expressly forbid their release.

"What it boils down to is, the University of Nebraska has no legal prohibition," Goodman said in a telephone interview. "They are choosing not to release (the records)."

Goodman said that in the wake of the FERPA amendment, a few schools responded by making such records readily available. But he said schools have been more responsive to rules adopted last summer by the U.S. Department of Education that outline how colleges and universities should handle such records.

"Definitely, schools are becoming more forthcoming with this kind of information," he said. "Unfortunately, not a lot of requests have been made or been pushed."

And that, he said, is why some schools, like the University of Nebraska, continue to withhold records. But Goodman said he expects increased and stronger efforts to get such records.

"I think we'll see more open confrontations like this in the spring," he said. "And I anticipate that we'll see more lawsuits in the future."

But maybe not in Nebraska.

Although a lawsuit isn't out of the picture, the students at the Daily Nebraskan hope to resolve the dispute either by winning the administration over with persuasion and strong public outcry or by encouraging state lawmakers to overturn or revise the state law.

The students note, in particular, that a task force convened by then-Interim Chancellor Joan Leitzel to study the university's disciplinary procedures recommended in 1996 "that the results of alleged student code of conduct violations be made public on a regular basis, within the legal restrictions imposed."

And most legal restrictions, the students contend, have been removed.

Funk said they hope to change the minds of university officials about the records.

"But at this point, we're just trying to get the issue out there," he said.

Related

Press advocates applaud high court ruling in student-privacy case
Reporters Committee says journalists' newsgathering ability would have been limited if Supreme Court had allowed university to be sued for divulging student information.  06.21.02

University disciplinary records ruled private
6th Circuit panel blocks newspaper's bid to view documents, saying students' right to privacy outweighs public's right of access to information.  06.28.02

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