As a student journalist, reporting on sexual assault and Title IX-related developments can be tricky. Open information laws surrounding the matter can be unclear. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can be guaranteed if you decide to launch an investigation into how your school handles sexual assault.
Know the Law
First and foremost, know the laws relevant to the information you’re seeking. A surface level understanding of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Clery Act and federal and Texas open information laws will serve as a backstop for not getting denied access to information.
- In brief, FERPA is a federal law designed to protect the privacy of student educational records. It restricts the release of personally identifiable information without the parent or student’s consent. Universities often cite FERPA as justification for withholding documents that contain a student’s name, but most are legally available if they can be redacted to protect the student’s identity. More detail on the law and what is specifically available can be found here.
- The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act mandates that institutions of higher education accurately collect and report crime data to the U.S. Department of Education. Passed in 1990, the Clery Act was amended in 1992 to require schools to notify alleged sexual assault victims of counseling services and the option for class reassignments. The amendment also created equal opportunity for disciplinary proceedings between the alleged victim and assailant.
The breadth of this topic and the complexity of the laws can be channeled into a number of stories related to your college. Ranging from serious crime to university complaints and resource mismanagement, these are just a few places to look:
- File an FOIA request with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which monitors Title IX compliance. You can request a specific complaint or any Title IX documents related to a university over a defined period of time.
- Search for lawsuits filed against any Texas school with PACER, the federal court system’s website, or the court system website of Texas.
- Find out how crime data is reported on campus and see if it aligns with Clery Act guidelines.
- Read your school’s or local police department’s crime logs. Student criminal records are not subject to FERPA protections.
- University disciplinary proceedings against a student charged with a violent crime or non-forcible sex offense are available, if the university determines that the alleged perpetrator did commit the violation. In general, disciplinary records relating to Title IX are otherwise unavailable.
There are several potential sources and experts for every sexual assault related story you write. Some of these are readily available at every university, but others take time and sensitivity.
- Campus and local police departments.
- The author(s) of the annual campus security report.
- Advocates for victims of sexual assault, student counseling centers and nearby rape crisis centers.
- Victims of sexual assault or the lawyers representing them.
- Social media outreach can generate access to victims or individuals who have experienced sexual assault proceedings on campus.
- The Clery Act requires individual universities to publish an annual security report. You can find it through your school’s website or campus law enforcement.
- The U.S. Department of Education has a database of Clery Act statistics provided by schools.
- Documents related to Clery Act complaints and investigations against specific universities can be made available from the U.S. Department of Education through Freedom of Information Act requests.