Push for disclosure of university slush funds (foundations)

One of the most shameful government cover-ups in this country involves the use of non-profit foundations by public universities to hide shenanigans. Push for your legislature to require university foundations to be subject to your public records law.

That’s something California is considering since time after time foundations have been found to be slush funds for hiding embarrassing information. For example, see the 2007 Daily Bruin article about how big donors would get their kids into competitive programs through six-figure bribes. The latest flap is over a foundation’s big payment to get Sarah Palin to speak at Cal State. The universities claim that if they divulged donor information it would chill giving. On the other side, it might chill corruption.

Arizona school district sues citizens to prohibit records requests

The Congress Elementary School District in Arizona has sued four citizens to prohibit them from requesting any more records, according to an injunction filed Jan. 28.

According to a summary by the Goldwater Institute, which is representing the citizens, the school district has repeatedly violated the public records law and refused to provide basic information, such as budgets. The district states in its suit that the citizens have harassed the school, listing the records requested, including agendas and meeting minutes.

Sometimes active citizens get into arguments with officials and request a lot of records (custodians often call them “frequent fliers”), but the solution is not stripping their right to access meeting minutes. The injunction also asks the court to force the citizens to pay the school’s attorney fees. That’s just wrong.

From an access strategy perspective, these active folks can be a big help for tipping you off to records. Check out the agency’s FOI log to see who has requested records and what documents. You can get a sense for what is going on, find out about records you might not have known about, and also request the records yourself.

Lots of education records available despite FERPA

A lot of people assume that just about every kind of record held by schools and universities are secret because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, but it’s not true.

While schools have twisted FERPA beyond its intent (see great series by the Columbus-Dispatch), you can get directory information, budget information, and serious crime/disciplinary records. Also, you can get ANY record held by a school, even grades, as long as the student is not identifiable. So, for example, The Arizona Daily Star looked at grades in all its community school districts to reveal social promotion – a bunch of students flunking classes but still being moved onto the next grade. Because names were redacted, nobody’s privacy was invaded but the problem was still exposed.

For more information, check out a great new guide produced by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee (led by Carolyn Carlson), “Reporter’s Guide to FERPA.” You’ll find FERPA tales of horror (by David Chartrand), 10 great story ideas for school record stories (by Charles Davis), resources, and nuts and bolts breakdown of the law (by Jodi Cleesattle).

Investigate sexual assaults on your campus

The Investigative News Network released its first major project, on the lack of punishment by universities against rapists, based on an incredible amount of records gathering, interviews and surveys. They even explain how you can do the same reporting at your local university.

The year-long project, conducted by seven different state and regional investigative reporting groups, revealed a culture of indifference and lack of punishment for sexual assaults, sometimes leading to repeat offenders. The project also exposed a system shrouded in secrecy and under-reporting crime statistics to the public.

What I love about this project, other than the awesome reporting and writing, is a special Web page set up to help others do the same reporting. The Reporter’s Toolkit lays out the law, how to investigate the cases, and provides a long list of resources. Outstanding!

Also, this report shows, once again, that universities rarely report accurate crime statistics (see, for example, a project in 2004 that showed how universities in the Pacific Northwest under-reported crime stats, despite federal law (Clery Act) requiring they tell the public what is going on). It goes to show that you can’t trust everything in a public record – numbers are sometimes twisted to make agencies look better. That’s why it is important to triangulate – look at other places that might have similar records, interview people, and find out what’s really going on.

Should a Parent Have a Right to See the Tape?

Kid gets into fight in middle school right here in Columbia, Mo. Mom asks whether there is a surveillance camera. School says “yes, but you can’t watch it…” and a Sunshine scrap ensues. Why can’t she see it?

College journalists: Get into a doc state of mind in Phoenix

This week college journalists will converge on downtown Phoenix for the Associated Collegiate Press national conference, and we hope they won’t want to miss some sessions on accessing public records (check out the incredible program):

  • Mark Goodman, former director of the Student Press Law Center, will do a session on accessing public records, 1-3:45 p.m. Thursday.
  • Database reporting on campus. Steve Doig from Arizona State University will give a session on accessing data for investigative reporting on campus, 9-10:05 a.m. Friday.
  • The art of access. I will give a talk on access strategy and useful records for campus papers, 10:15-11:20 a.m. Friday.
  • Craig Harris from The Arizona Republic will give a session on how he broke a big story by using public records laws, 3:30-4:30 p.m. Friday.
  • When law and ethics collide. Student Press Law Center attorney Mike Hiestand will talk about circumstances for when it might not be ethical to publish something from a record, even if it is legally permissible.