Oklahoma State’s handling of sex offender earns it a ‘Black Hole’ from SPJ

22 03 2013

Oklahoma State University’s decision to not tell police or students about a serial sex offender on campus earned it the national Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Black Hole award for 2013.

SPJ, the nation’s largest and broadest-based journalism association, gives out the award to government entities that flagrantly violate the public’s right to know. The award was announced Friday morning.

(Disclosure: As a member of SPJ’s national Freedom of Information Committee, I served as one of the judges for the Black Hole award.)

In the case of Oklahoma State, the university had received complaints that a student sexually assaulted several fraternity members. However, instead of calling police or notifying students about a possible sexual predator in their midst, the university quietly handled the issue in a closed-door administrative proceeding.

University officials maintained that they could not disclose information about the assaults because it would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the law that was intended to keep academic records such as transcripts and report cards from being disclosed publicly.

The U.S. Department of Education has clearly stated that FERPA cannot be used as an excuse to not notify police about a crime on campus, or to warn students about potential danger.

But emails obtained by the Associated Press revealed that administrators were more concerned about how the scandal would affect the school’s reputation than they were about student privacy.

Oklahoma State was nominated by Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“It’s really significant that SPJ has recognized a serial abuser of FERPA,” LoMonte said. “This spotlights a problem with FERPA.”

LoMonte noted that Oklahoma State has classified student parking tickets as FERPA-protected documents, allowing it to deny access to journalists looking into parking issues on campus. The university was also censured for classifying a sexual assault as a burglary on a campus crime report required under the Clery Act.

Oklahoma State joins The Wisconsin, Georgia and Utah legislatures, and the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services as a national Black Hole recipient. Utah received the first-ever national Black Hole award for its passage of HB477, a bill that would have gutted the Government Records Access and Management Act.

Public outcry, along with the national publicity from the award, led the Legislature to repeal HB477.





‘Anonymous’ SUU employees’ identities finally see light of day

22 01 2013

There are now 1,500 additional names in Southern Utah University’s salary database for 2012, thanks to GRAMA.

The database we obtained from the state’s transparency website did not list the names of student employees or even the Cedar City campus’ police force. Because of the anonymity and technical difficulties with the database, we had to list the students in the aggregate.

As a group, these students were paid $4.7 million in salaries and benefits, putting them well above President Michael Benson and other SUU officials.

When I asked why the names were kept under wraps, the university’s controller, Michael Beach, informed me it was because of releasing student names might violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). FERPA is the law that makes academic records private, but some have seized on it as a cloak to hide documents that are otherwise public.

Recently, Granite School District invoked FERPA in an attempt to deny The Salt Lake Tribune records on its investigation of an alleged “inappropriate relationship” between Cottonwood High’s former head football coach and a student.

Beach also told me that the police officers’ names were redacted for “personal safety.” While the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) allows holding back information on undercover officers, it is inconceivable to think that the entire SUU campus police force, including its chief, are all undercover operatives.

To break through the logjam, I filed a GRAMA request for an unredacted salary database. The university’s initial response was to give me the same database as submitted to the state, with the same reasons for not fully granting the request.

After a GRAMA appeal challenging both withholdings, and noting, with help from the Student Press Law Center, that FERPA does not apply to student wages, we got the full database, which is now online. This gives the public, whose funds support SUU, a better look at how their money is being spent.

— Donald W. Meyers