Ohio University’s Feb. 1 arrests of 70 pro-“sanctuary campus” demonstrators marked a dramatic change from past university responses to campus activism. At the same time, local media coverage of this event also has been a departure from past practice. The difference is local news reporting has changed for the better.
Thanks to Conor Morris’s reporting for The Athens NEWS and his paper’s one-time collaboration with the New Political’s Austin Linfante, we know that Ohio University Police arrested a greater number of protesters Feb. 1 than were arrested at any demonstration in Athens in over a quarter century, and more than at any Vietnam Era protest.
Indeed, Feb. 1 probably marked the highest number of protesters ever arrested on campus by OUPD. And finally, as Morris reported in a Feb. 1 online article, “The arrests for trespassing are a far cry from a student-led sit-in protest that occurred in the exact same part of Baker Center in 2014. No students were arrested, and they were allowed to stay past Baker Center’s closing time (midnight, at the time).”
Providing such historical context is itself a challenge to authority given that OU has attempted to portray its unprecedented recent arrests as routine and unremarkable. Yet The NEWS’ challenge to authority has been even more direct.
In his Feb. 1 online article, Morris reported, “[OUPD Chief Andrew Powers] said one of the main issues was access to the building’s entrance and exits, although at one point, this reporter observed the protesters clearing a path for people to walk through after being asked to by police.”
And in the Feb. 5 print edition, Morris reported, “By the time the protesters were arrested, the police had cleared the room of all media and onlookers and barred further entry to the room. This reporter was threatened with arrest if he didn’t exit the room, although the officers present at the time refused to say on what grounds.”
Reporting that gives historical context and challenges authority is especially important to our community. Athens is made up of about 20,000 college students and only several thousand permanent residents. As OU graduates are continuously replaced by first-year students, about one fifth of our population changes every year. Five years from now the vast majority of faces on Court Street will belong to different people. This high turnover rate means most Athenians lack local knowledge and the time to accumulate it – something that makes students vulnerable to all sorts of predators, from rapists and slumlords to corrupt university and city authorities.
Meanwhile, much of our local reporting is produced by student reporters. So when journalism professors and local media professionals fail to impress upon young reporters the importance of research that situates current events in a broader context of local history, the result is a kind of superficial, amnesiac journalism that reinforces the strength of local predators and the weakness of their prey.
One striking example of this kind of insufficient reporting is an absolute bombshell of a story about administrative culpability for violence against female and LGBT students that local (and statewide) media totally missed not very long ago. Reviewing it now sheds light on how far local reporting has progressed since then and on how little, if at all, OU has progressed in its responses to concerned students striving to make Athens a safer and better place.
After an eight-day period in January 2002 during which three sexual assaults and the homophobic beating of a lesbian student were reported to have occurred on OU’s campus, I (then an undergraduate student activist) discovered OU administrators for many years had been violating federal legal requirements for informing students and university employees of itemized crime statistics, reporting procedures, prevention programs and survivor support resources.
Speaking Feb. 4, 2002, at a videotaped rally on College Green held after a crowd of about 300 students walked out of class to protest OU’s response to sexual and heterosexist violence, I criticized local media’s failure to cover OU’s violations.
“I wish that the college media would spend less time criticizing people who are trying to address these issues [The Post that day had issued an editorial opposing the walkout] and do a little investigative reporting into something called the Clery Act,” I told the crowd before explaining OU’s violations in detail.
The Columbus Dispatch responded by reporting, “And [students] criticized the university for posting old crime statistics on the OU police Web site. A university spokeswoman acknowledged the error and said it has been corrected.”
The Athens NEWS followed suit two days later: “OU is not in compliance with the Clery Act because statistics are only available through 1999, Krane said. (In the Columbus Dispatch on Tuesday, an OU representative said that the oversight had been corrected.)”
Meanwhile, a Feb. 5, 2002 online article for Athensi.com quoted then Dean of Students Terry Hogan responding to my charges by asserting, “OU is doing more than the Clery Act requires.”
A letter I co-wrote published by local papers in early April 2002, further described the administration’s response.
“At an open forum regarding assault prevention on Feb. 10, one student [me] even went as far as to read the text of the Clery Act verbatim to OU administrators, who still continued to deny that OU was in violation. Assistant Director of OUPD Mark Matthews claimed that the Department of Education told him OU did not have to directly notify students of the [comprehensive annual campus security] report [by Oct. 1 of each year, as stated in the act]. Because the DOE is charged with enforcing the act, OU Dean of Students Terry Hogan suggested the agency might have modified the law’s written requirements,” we wrote.
The letter then described an interview I conducted with the Department of Education official responsible for heading up enforcement of the Clery Act.
“[David] Bergeron, chief of Policy and Budget Development for the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Post Secondary Education, confirmed that schools are required to notify all students and employees [of the annual report] in precisely the manner described in the act’s text,” we wrote.
On March 6, 2002, amid an ongoing student campaign, OU finally came into compliance with the Clery Act when it sent emails and postcards to all students and employees, notifying them of the availability of OU’s newly published campus security report more than five months after the Oct. 1, 2001 deadline had passed. The notifications stated, “This information is required by law and is provided by the Ohio University Police Department.”
Then OU simultaneously admitted and denied it had violated the Clery Act.
“University representative Leesa Brown ackowledged OU’s delay in releasing the report this year, but said that the university did comply with the Clery Act,” The Athens NEWS reported on April 1, 2002. “The delay was caused by a change in administration in the OU Police Department and a mix-up over who was putting the report together and getting it out to the public, she explained.”
However, OU’s response to my public records request two years later supported students’ assertion that OU was not only late in issuing its 2001 security report but also had failed to properly issue any previous year’s report. From 2002 on, each year’s report took the form of a bound booklet, some 30-40 pages in length, characterized by a consistent design format, which OU provided to me along with a postcard notifying students and employees of the report’s release. However, for 1999, 2000 and 2001, OU did not provide any postcards. Meanwhile, the 2000 “report” was printed on the flipside of an 11 x 17” campus map, and the 2001 “report” was contained on the front and back of a single, 8 ½” x 11” sheet of paper. Neither the 2000 or 2001 report contained sufficient information required by law. Finally, OU provided no report of any kind for 1999.
All of this became more troubling in December 2004 when the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that during a three-year period spanning 2001 through 2003, more rapes in residence halls were reported at OU than at any other public postsecondary school in the state. Since OU spent nearly half of this time period neglecting to fulfill its legal duty to inform students of crime statistics, reporting procedures, prevention programs and survivor support resources, the Plain Dealer’s report could have proven disastrous for university officials. But no local journalists took notice, so shameless administrators seized the opportunity to lie and give themselves a pat on the back.
“Relatively speaking, our numbers reflect that we have a well-developed and aggressive system of encouraging students to report these crimes,” then OU Dean of Students Terry Hogan told The Athens NEWS in January 2005.
“One thing we really pride ourselves on here at OU is that we educate our students on sexual assault,” Director of OU Health and Wellness Char Kopchik told The NEWS. “Victims feel comfortable coming forward and reporting crimes.”
A letter to the editor published one week later took things even further.
“As an attorney with a primary focus in representing victims of sexual assault on college campuses, I want to applaud Ohio University for its reporting of sexual assaults and its stance on addressing this pervasive problem,” wrote Amanda A. Farahany of the law firm Barrett & Farahany, located in Atlanta, Georgia.
“Only when a college takes the stance that OU has by encouraging reporting, educating students, and creating an environment where victims are not punished and perpetrators are held responsible will this problem be eradicated,” she continued. “OU should not be singled out for its ‘high crime rate,’ but should instead be singled out for its commitment to the safety of its students.”
Thus an absence of solid local reporting not only enabled OU officials to successfully cover up their violations of federal student safety laws at a time of especially high reports of campus violence – it actually helped these corrupt officials exploit the unsafe environment they helped create to advance their own careers.
Fast forward to the present, and whether we’re talking about OU’s cover-up of its Clery Act violations 15-20 years ago or the university’s arrests of 70 peaceful protesters on completely bogus charges earlier this month, the main takeaways are the same. OU’s upper administration, its police force, and their unscrupulous allies will act to the detriment of students and then blatantly lie about it. Local media can help us hold these people accountable — but only when journalists do the necessary research and have the courage to report the truth. The Athens NEWS’ coverage of OU's Feb. 1 arrests is a commendable example of the kind of coverage the people of Athens deserve. Here’s hoping we see more of it!
Damon Krane of Athens is formerly a grassroots organizer, Post columnist, Athens NEWS contributor, co-founder of The InterActivist, and editor of that magazine from 2005 to 2008. He currently owns and operates Hot Potato food truck in Athens.