Freedom of Information Foundation’s Student Project Results in Record Fine

AUSTIN, TEXAS – Friday, November 6, 2009: When Erin Cooper was a journalism student at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, in the Fall of 2006, she participated in a student program of The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. The Foundation’s program is called the “Light of Day” project.

Journalism faculty at Texas’ universities participate in the Foundation’s statewide topic to teach students how to use public records, including the state’s Open Records Act, to get information that government agencies might not otherwise provide willingly.

Little did Cooper know that her curiosity about unrevealed crimes at Tarleton State would lead to the largest fine ever levied against a Texas college or university for violation of the law that mandates accurate and complete reports on college campus crimes.

Three years later, as a reporter for the Stephenville Empire-Tribune, Cooper wrote the news story that her alma mater received the state’s record fine of $137,500 from the U.S. Dept. of Education for not accurately reporting the total number of crimes, such as sexual assault and robbery. The story broke online the day before by the student newspaper at Tarleton State, The J-TAC.

The “Light of Day” project that year was the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, known simply as the Clery Act. Enforced by the Dept. of Education, the federal law mandates full, timely and public reports about crime on college campuses throughout the U.S. As part of her training with the “Light of Day” project, Cooper wrote the open records request to Tarleton State’s officials seeking copies of all on-campus crime reports.

In response, what she and other students in Dan Malone’s journalism class received to their official request for information indicated that sexual assaults, robberies and burglaries at Tarleton State were not fully revealed in public reports. Malone, a Pulitzer-prize winning investigative reporter, encouraged his students to dig deeper for additional documentation.

“It takes someone like Dan to spark the embers of passion for the public’s right to know,” Cooper said. “Because of him and The Freedom of Information Foundation’s ‘Light of Day’ project, we students were able to shed light on the real situation about crime on our campus.”

As a result of Texas journalism students’ findings and analysis of their campuses’ adherence to the Clery Act, nineteen news articles were written about under-reporting crime at the state’s public and private universities. Their statewide look at the failure of many Texas colleges to fully comply with the Clery Act won first and second prizes in regional and statewide journalism competitions, as well as a national Jeanne Clery Campus Safety Award, given by the nonprofit organization Security on Campus Inc.

The group of journalism students at Tarleton State won the “Mark of Excellence” Award from the Texas & Oklahoma region of the Society of Professional Journalists. The “Mark of Excellence” is the first-place award in the student category from the largest and oldest organization for professional journalists.

Dan Malone and two other faculty members in the Light of Day project won the Freedom of Information Foundation’s highest honor, the James Madison Award. Malone is the current Co-Chair of FOIFT’s “Light of Day” project.