From the Editor: One year and counting since WKU sued the Herald

“WKU sues Herald over access to records” was the above-the-fold news story that graced kiosks around WKU just over one year ago, it was Feb. 28, 2017 to be exact. From then on it was official: WKU was suing the College Heights Herald.

We knew the lawsuit was coming down the pipeline by the beginning of February 2017. WKU told us as much. The attorney general had ruled the month prior that by not releasing records, redacted or otherwise, of Title IX investigations completed by WKU, the university had violated Kentucky’s Open Records Act. Simply put, they had broken the law.

The Herald requested access on Nov. 1, 2016, to all Title IX investigative records into WKU faculty and staff sexual misconduct allegations occurring in the last five years. These records include documents of six university employee resignations since 2013 after the results of Title IX investigations found violations of university policy.

WKU, per university policy, defines sexual misconduct/assault as “actual or attempted sexual contact with another person without that person’s consent.” This includes, but isn’t limited to intentional and unwelcome touching, sexual contact when the victim isn’t able to consent and rape.

The justifications the university has given over the past year for suing us and not releasing the records don’t hold up in my eyes. Their justifications are also continuing to not hold up in the eyes of the attorney general who recently filed a motion for summary judgment and has argued that the university willfully violated the state’s open records act.

WKU claims they can’t release the records because it would be a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. However, the Houston Chronicle, a newspaper that requested Title IX records from some of the largest universities in Texas in 2016, was able to protect the identities of victims and serve justice to the offending faculty members.

Unless something has changed recently, and Texas has seceded from the United States, Texas is still beholden to federal law, and yet they released this information and suffered no penalties.

Even more to the point, WKU didn’t cite FERPA in its initial denial, and it wasn’t until the attorney general requested to see the records did they decide to blanket these records with the federal exemption; records, which should be pointed out, are teacher disciplinary records and not student disciplinary records.

WKU has also cited several statues from the state’s open records act saying the records should be exempted. Yet, no other public university in the state, save for WKU and Kentucky State University, had any qualms about releasing their Title IX records. All had varying levels of redacted information, of course, but most importantly all student identifying information was redacted. Equally important, these universities managed to not break the law, something WKU is still struggling with.

What it has always come down to for WKU administrators, this was true for former President Gary Ransdell and remains so for President Timothy Caboni, is they value student “privacy” over student safety and are more than willing to conflate the two. More or less, this has become the official stance of WKU. They won’t drop the lawsuit, and yes, I’ve asked a few times before, because they value student privacy above all else.

If only the attorney general gave WKU the option for the records to be viewed in private before they were released to the public to maximize the chances that victims are protected. Oh, wait, the attorney general did do that. And if only the Herald also agreed with wanting to protect victims and not release their names. Oh, wait, we do.

“We will fight tooth and nail to protect student privacy, particularly when it comes to the issues of sexual assault,” Caboni said during a meeting with the editorial board after I asked him if WKU would consider dropping the lawsuit. “I will not have a student’s name even possibly made public around one of the most damaging and painful experiences of that student’s life.”

Truly, I understand what he means. I don’t want a student’s name out there either, I don’t want anyone to have to relieve a painful experience like sexual assault.

But, privacy and safety can coexist. The Herald proved that last year when reporting on Title IX records from other universities and how sexual misconduct was handled, or failed to be handled. Victims were protected, wrongdoing was laid out in the light.

Yet, WKU seems all too willing to award privacy to sexual predators and forfeit the safety of students here and students elsewhere. When those six employees were allowed to resign before a Title IX investigation ended, what do you think happens?

For starters, there’s no paper trail that follows the employee to their next job because the university never took the final action of concluding the investigation. This means WKU can tell other employers, likely other universities, that the person is ineligible for rehire at WKU but not because they were found to have violated the university’s sexual misconduct policy.

Thus, the cycle of misconduct is potentially able to repeat itself somewhere else. But, hey, on the bright side, WKU can wipe its hands clean and continue on its merry way.

And what sort of climate do you think that creates here at WKU? Why worry about the consequences of your actions when you can be given the option to resign and everything will be just fine. There’s no justice in that, only danger and gross irresponsibility.

WKU’s actions and policies don’t aggressively protect students from predators and would-be predators on the faculty or staff because the university allows the aggressor to resign, resulting in WKU dropping the case before its “conclusion.” A climate such as this is not meant to protect students. It’s meant to protect WKU.

What do you think WKU gains from this? From the secrecy and the lawsuit? Their holy claims of “privacy” and gross inaction? Nothing, nothing but power.

Power to keep this information hidden, under lock and key. Power to maintain their message and keep the university on brand. Power to do it, because they can.

This lawsuit will more than likely outlive my time as editor-in-chief, and maybe even the next three or four or 10 editors after me. What will also outlive me is the Herald’s dedication to maintain a responsible line between privacy and safety. We respect the rights of victims and will always protect their identities in these truly harrowing instances, and we realize we also have an obligation to this university, and others, to bring misconduct to light.

There’s no doubt in my mind WKU will end up on the wrong side of history for hiding these records, for protecting predators, for valuing image above all else.

Here’s to one year of the lawsuit. Cheers to possibly many more to come.