Universities need to respect the Open Records Act

Oklahoma State University’s newspaper’s struggle to get information in a timely manner exemplifies many universities’ lack of transparency.

The Oklahoma Open Records Act is a set of laws meant to guarantee public access to all public records of government bodies. This means all state government agencies, including the publicly funded State Department of Education, must be able to produce any records deemed open upon written request from anyone. No declared purpose is necessary, though some fees may apply if the requester wants the records for commercial use.

There are exemptions, of course. Personnel records that include information such as addresses and personal phone numbers are excluded. Police departments are supposed to keep records like initial offense, radio logs and arrest records open, but investigatory records are closed. In terms of universities’ records, there’s a good amount of controversy as to what should be public record and what shouldn’t.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, was established in 1974 to protect the privacy of student education records within any schools that receive funds from the Department of Education. In the act, any materials “which contains information directly related to a student … and are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a person acting for such agency or institution” are deemed protected. Eligible students or parents of minors must sign consent forms in order for the student’s papers to be released.

Last year, the “O’Colly” sent written record requests to 31 Oklahoma public universities asking for campuses’ police reports, incident reports, criminal citations, lists of people with unpaid parking tickets, the employment contract of the university president and other information defined as public record. Of the 31 schools the paper wrote to, only 60 percent sent documents for inspection. The gray area of what’s public and what’s protected led to multiple universities withholding documents. Some universities acknowledged the request had been received but failed to send the materials before the report was published. Others didn’t acknowledge the request.

Many of the unreleased documents were incident reports or other information the universities deemed protected by FERPA. However, FERPA was amended in 1992 to remove protections of documents held by campus police or security, making it unlawful to cite FERPA when refusing to release information such as a student arrest record or incident report. In 1998, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that “FERPA was not intended to preclude the release of any record simply because the record contained the name of a student. The federal statute was obviously intended to keep private those aspects of a student’s education life that relate to academic matters or status of a student.”

Even as FERPA is amended and courts rule what is and isn’t protected from request, some schools continue to cite outdated FERPA laws. Incident information that is both within a student’s personal school files and within a campus security file is often withheld under the assumption it is protected by FERPA. However, its place within campus security files which aren’t protected by FERPA means it may be released in accordance with the Oklahoma Open Records Act.

Critics say universities treat compliance with the Open Records Act more as a suggestion than a law. “O’Colly” waited an average of 18 days to receive requested documents, and others have reported bureaucratic and needless delays in receiving their information. Many say these delays can dissuade people from requesting records.

Obviously, a school should protect students’ personal information. However, state law demands transparency from its public schools, and the amount of disobedience with which many of these universities respond may represent a larger trend of low transparency. Whether lists of unpaid tickets should be available is to be debated, but campuses too often incorrectly cite FERPA to withhold incident information such as sexual assault rulings. If someone is barred from a university, has been found guilty of an offense or otherwise has sanctions placed on them for one reason or another, that information should be open to the public through campus security offices.

Post Author: Nathan Gibbons