This campus safety investigation won 3rd place in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Region 5 Mark of Excellence Awards. The conference is in Indianapolis April 13-14.
It’s difficult if not impossible to determine which Illinois colleges and universities are complying with a state law that’s supposed to make school campuses safer.
Under Illinois’ Campus Security Enhancement Act of 2008 — passed in the wake of the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University shootings – nearly 200 higher education institutions must create violence prevention and emergency response plans. Schools must also hold annual security trainings and form behavior assessment teams that track dangerous behavior on campuses.
The 189 colleges and universities covered by the law are supposed to submit these plans — which can number in the hundreds of pages — to their local emergency officials and to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. Under the law’s rules and regulations, schools are also encouraged to submit their plans to the Illinois Board of Higher Education or the Illinois Community College Board.
But when ChicagoTalks reporters asked for records related to the law under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act, the requests were denied or reporters were told the documents could not be located by the public agencies responsible for collecting the information.
ChicagoTalks also discovered that officials at three state agencies mentioned in the law don’t think they’re responsible for monitoring and enforcing it.
Gretchen Jarrett, who as the state’s campus security coordinator helps schools develop their emergency plans, said the law requires all institutions to have a plan, but it doesn’t designate a specific agency or person to make sure that they do.
“Campuses are doing it, but there is just no one there to say whether someone is compliant or not compliant,” said Jarrett, who works for the Center for Public Safety and Justice at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Every public agency ChicagoTalks contacted in its three-month investigation – including the Illinois Board of Higher Education, the Illinois Community College Board and Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications – denied the news site’s requests for each school plan, citing the exemption to the state’s FOIA law that allows information to be withheld if making it public would pose a security risk.
Maryam Judar, community lawyer at the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, a group that advocates for open government, said she understands the argument that parts of the plans could pose a security risk, but there’s still a way to make the documents public.
“(The exempt) portions could be redacted,” Judar said.
The Illinois Emergency Management Agency was the only public body to hand over any plans. It did so after blacking out a few lines of information from one plan the agency said would be an invasion of public privacy.
“The only things redacted in the documents were the private cell phone numbers in the Sauk Valley Plan. Nothing else was redacted,” Traci Burton, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency’s legal office, said in an e-mail.
In all, the emergency management agency turned over five school plans out of the dozens of institutions covered by the law: Illinois Wesleyan University, Sauk Community College, Southwestern Illinois University, Southeastern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
The agency could not say when the five schools submitted their plans or provide any other information, such as which of the 189 schools are following the law. Neither could the Illinois Board of Higher Education or Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
Under the campus security law’s rules and regulations, a campus violence prevention plan is required to include a distribution list of the plan’s recipients and show the integration of existing campus programs and policies that deal with issues such as violence, suicide, bullying and sexual assault prevention.
The Citizen Advocacy Center’s Judar said there’s no “imminent threat” with releasing the plans if sensitive information is removed.
On the other hand, Judar said plans for energy and nuclear stations can’t be released to the public in any state because “you can say there is an imminent threat giving intimate details of the physical structures of these buildings that can be used as weapons.”
But, she added, “schools and their plans are not the same thing.”
Information such as where a secret button is located to contact authorities in the midst of an emergency or other sensitive information could be redacted, Judar said.
But those kind of details aren’t contained in the five plans provided by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
There is information about how to evacuate the school in the event of a fire, how the school’s administration contacts students in an emergency and what to do if there is a gas leak, among other safety procedures. Some plans list local media phone numbers, and some mention the hospitals that will coordinate with the school if a deadly outbreak occurs.
Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition based at The Missouri School of Journalism, said there’s a culture of resistance within government agencies – especially law enforcement and safety agencies – about releasing documents to the public.
After 9/11, more government agencies used the excuse that documents cannot be released because of potential safety risks, Bunting said.
But of the required school plans, he said, “I can’t imagine why the whole document would be exempt.”
When reporters tried to determine how many community colleges had plans that complied with the campus security law, the Illinois Community College Board explained in a statement that, “neither the Act nor the Administrative Rules of the Illinois Community College Board or of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency has an enforcement section, and no entity is tasked with determining compliance.”
Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications declined to provide ChicagoTalks with a list of the 63 schools in Cook County that submitted a plan.
Allegra Martin, a spokeswoman for the agency, said her office doesn’t have a list.
And if the office had such a list, “we couldn’t give it out.”
That would be “a breach of security,” she added.
“What about the (schools) that didn’t (submit a plan)?” she said. “Once we release that to the public, that can get in the hands of anybody. It puts out too much information as to who is prepared or not.”
Once that information leaves the office, “it can go anywhere,” she said.
Judar from the Citizen Advocacy Center doesn’t think that’s right.
“Why would that be a secret?” she said, referring to the list of schools with a plan.
ChicagoTalks reporters appealed the Illinois Board of Education’s FOIA denial to the state’s public access counselor in mid-October.
Matthew Rogina, assistant public access counselor in Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office, requested the withheld information on Oct. 25, as well as a detailed analysis about why the information should not be released to the public.
Don Sevener, deputy director for external relations at the Illinois Board of Higher Education, said in the board’s initial FOIA denial statement the law’s rules and regulations state that schools “should” submit plans to the state’s higher education agency, not “shall.”
So the higher education agency doesn’t have to report which schools submit their plans, Sevener said in a written statement.
He did say that nine public and 12 private institutions in the state submitted plans – but initially would not specify which ones. Sevener denied reporters’ request for the 21 school plans, citing FOIA’s security exemption and also noting the agency has “hard copies,” ranging in length from 40 to “well over 200 pages.”
The National Freedom of Information Coalition’s Bunting said “that’s a bad excuse” for state education officials to say they can’t provide the documents electronically. He said it’s not unusual for government agencies to stretch the various FOIA exemptions — and that’s unfortunate for citizens.
“It should be as easy as them asking for it, and the agency willingly giving it,” Bunting said.
After prodding from the public access counselor, the higher education board in late November provided the names of the 21 schools that submitted a plan. Six are in Cook County:
- · Chicago State University
- · Columbia College Chicago
- · Illinois Institute of Technology
- · John Marshal Law School
- · School of the Art Institute of Chicago
- · University of Illinois at Chicago
It’s not clear when, if at all, ChicagoTalks reporters will be able to view the safety plans.
William Feurer, a legal officer for the Illinois Board of Higher Education, said it intends to ask the 21 schools if they would approve releasing their plans to the public, with or without redactions. Then perhaps they would be turned over.
Until then, the public waits.
Other stories in this series:
Few Cook County Colleges, Universities Following State’s Campus Security Act
One-Person State Office Not Enforcing the Campus Security Act
State Lawmakers, College Students Unaware That Many Schools Not Following the Campus Security Law
A grant funded by The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and awarded by the Chicago Headline Club helped cover the costs of reporting this story. This story is part of a collaboration with the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium, which includes Midwest university journalism professors and students working on news projects in the public interest. The consortium is supported by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.