U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's decision to impose an $110,000 fine on Tarleton State University for failing to follow disclosure guidelines when reporting on the campus crime statistics only underlines the importance of open-access policies when it comes to information about educational institutions in the country. The discrepancy was uncovered by a group of journalism students who made a Freedom of Information Act request for campus police reports, and then compared them to the information on crime stats published by the school.
According to the records, the school had failed to report more than 70 separate crimes, including several cases of sexual assault and drug and alcohol violations. The period in question spanned the years between 2003 and 2005.
By failing to disclose the statistics properly, Tarleton State put itself in violation of the Clery Act which compels such disclosure from schools receiving federal funds.
For Erin Cooper-Baize, who was a college senior when she filed the FOIA request, the path to getting the information wasn't smooth.
"We actually had to fight with them to even get the request done," she told the Student Press Law Center. "They said they didn't have to give us certain items, and we had to keep going back."
Once the violations were uncovered, the school was fined $137,500 by the Department of Education. Although the fine was reduced to $27,500 on appeal, Duncan stepped in and overruled the decision made by the DoE administrative court judge.
In his statement announcing the decision, Duncan said:
"A single fine for issuing a crime report missing multiple crimes is tantamount to sending the message to postsecondary institutions throughout the nation that regardless of whether your crime report omits one crime or 101 crimes, the maximum fine is the same."
Duncan's statement might not be the last word in this matter, and the school might end up paying even more, since, as part of his decision, Duncan also directed the Office of Federal Student Aid to weigh on on the penalty of Tarleton's other violations.
The ultimate size of the fine could rise because Duncan asked the Office of Federal Student Aid to decide the punishment for Tarleton's other unreported crimes.
Today, Tarleton is a more transparent place, with a new police chief and a Clery oversight committee, said Cooper-Baize's instructor, Pulitzer Prize winner Dan Malone.