Benjamin J. Marrison Commentary: Universities Hide Crime Information From Public

November 23, 2014

By Benjamin J. Marrison at The Columbus Dispatch

There are about 127,000 high-school seniors in Ohio this year.

Many of them will head to college next fall.

As these young people decide where to begin the next, important phase of their lives, they’ll spend countless hours researching which college best fits them. They’ll review many factors before making their decisions — academic majors, reputation, costs, community, etc.

Understandably, safety is an important factor.

Students and their parents want to know that the campus is safe. They need to know that if a student harms another, action will be taken to protect the student body and punish the wrongdoer.

But as you’ll discover in the latest installment of Campus Insecurity, our ongoing investigation into campus justice, this isn’t as easy as Congress intended it to be.

Our reporting project, conducted in partnership with the Student Press Law Center, found that campus judicial systems often impose light sanctions for serious infractions.

Students who face justice within this secretive system sometimes are punished with slaps on the wrist, if they receive any punishment at all. The public is kept in the dark about what happens to those who commit acts of violence involving college students, despite a federal law that allows universities to provide the information.

As we reveal today, that law is routinely ignored (at worst) and misunderstood (at best). The lack of public scrutiny blocks our collective ability to know whether justice is being served — for both the victim and the accused.

We asked universities across the country for information about students found responsible by a student-discipline board of committing an act of violence — defined by the U.S. Department of Education as murder, sexual assault, physical assault, arson, robbery, burglary and vandalism. Federal law expands a crime of violence to a threat or an attempt to commit personal harm or destroy property.

Most universities ignored our requests for information, even in states where it is required (such as Ohio). Just 25 of the 110 colleges provided complete information, or about one in five.

One in five. That should frost your cookies.

By withholding information from us, they keep it from you.

And if they’re willing to stiff-arm us — journalists who are trained to get information from unwilling bureaucrats — do you think your son or daughter has a chance?

If you read today’s installment, or those that follow Monday and Tuesday, I predict you’ll be alarmed and angry, unless you believe suitable punishment for one student assaulting another is writing a paper about it.

Does that really qualify as a life lesson?

Not only should this widespread ignorance and/or refusal to provide information bother future students and their parents, it should greatly concern students already walking campuses nationwide.

Here’s why: If students can learn that Student X has been disciplined for assault or sexual assault, those students will know to avoid that person at a bar, a party, an event or in class. Wouldn’t it be helpful to know if Student X has been slipping a drug into the drinks of fellow students and assaulting them?

Or what if you’re assigned a lab partner who has a history of violence? What if the student has a history of attacking fellow students over disagreements or has stolen from them? Is that something they should know before they invite the person over to work on a project?

Congress thought so. That’s why it made exceptions to the student-privacy law and allowed universities to share the information: because we have a right to know. And a need to know.

Who are we protecting here?

Beyond the question of providing information, imagine if you’re a student who is wrongly accused of something. These campus judicial tribunals are accountable to no one.

As you will see in Tuesday’s installment, a student at Xavier University was not prosecuted by one of the toughest county prosecutors in Ohio, yet was found responsible by the university’s in-house justice system. Does that make any sense?

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine was bothered by the findings of our investigation because it reinforced concerns he’s seen raised nationally about fairness in the student-justice system.

“Your story certainly sheds light on these issues,” DeWine said.

A quote in today’s story from an official with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education summed it up best: “That is not a recipe for justice,” he said. “That is a recipe for error, and it really should be deeply troubling to all of us.”