Bowing to the cherished principle that transparency makes for better government, better institutions and better communities, state lawmakers last year overwhelmingly passed a law requiring private university and college police departments to release upon request information such as crime reports, just as city police departments must do. We saw this as a triumph for public safety.
One idea behind this warmly welcomed state law was that current and prospective students of private colleges and universities, their parents and surrounding communities have every right to know just how safe these campuses are. Now it appears much of this law is in serious doubt, judging from inaction by State Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office aiding Baylor University in what more and more of the public are concluding is a massive and self-destructive cover-up concerning its handling of sexual assaults involving students and, in some cases, athletes. Allegations range from indifferent handling of student victims to feeble probing of complaints.
It’s another dismal chapter in a messy saga revolving around some Baylor football players; allegations against them of sexual assault (with two cases so far yielding convictions); and, just as serious, questions about Baylor’s systemic protocol for addressing such incidents. Baylor’s fight for secrecy in all this has only allowed victims and other critics to compose some damning (and largely unchallenged) narratives about Baylor. And that’s sucking yet others into the quicksand.
In response to a request by the Tribune-Herald for all reports received by the Baylor Police Department regarding sexual assaults and improper sexual conduct and Baylor’s resistance to this request, Paxton’s office said last week that, yes, Baylor must release portions of some reports because of the Texas Legislature’s new law. But it left open questions of whether Baylor must release other portions of reports. Bizarrely, the opinion doesn’t sharply differentiate any of this.
Because Baylor claims some records must be withheld under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the university did not submit actual examples for Paxton’s office to consider, the state attorney general’s office simply didn’t rule on them. At least, so Paxton’s office says in its muddled May 17 opinion. In fact, the attorney general’s office suggests its own inspection of documents supposedly covered by FERPA is inappropriate. If so, such deference to federal authority by that office must rank as a first, given how many times the attorney general has challenged the feds.
If this opinion were a student paper, we’d give it an F, though an “Incomplete” might be more appropriate. Did the state attorney general’s office fail the public and an inquiring press by failing to show due diligence and telling Baylor straight out to submit examples of what it believes falls under FERPA guidelines? Or did it do Baylor a big favor by leaving it more than a little wiggle room to hide information?
It gets worse. Baylor sought to evade state law by insisting that these documents aren’t just law enforcement reports covered by the Public Information Act but materials used by Baylor’s Judicial Affairs Office and Title IX office and thus off limits. This rationale is so utterly absurd it ought to stand as a supreme embarrassment to the very eminent scholars at Baylor Law School who we presume see through this legal argument.
The fact the attorney general’s office has now made vague a new and very straightforward law feeds one more damaging narrative, casually noted by a lawmaker’s staffer who remarked to us that Attorney General Ken Paxton is a Baylor grad. As this scandal spreads like a toxic cloud beyond Baylor, it is gradually and surely claiming many others as complicit in this ill-advised strategy, regardless of whether they truly are.