Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court of Claims: University Police Files and Title IX Investigation Ruled Public Records

Image of 3 rows of standing, white file folders

The University of Cincinnati improperly withheld police records and the file of an investigation into a graduation award given to a student with a sex offense conviction.

Image of 3 rows of standing, white file folders

The University of Cincinnati improperly withheld police records and the file of an investigation into a graduation award given to a student with a sex offense conviction.

Certain police and college records related to a former University of Cincinnati student who is a sex offender and was honored by the university are public records that must be released, the Ohio Court of Claims has ordered.

Some of the records were part of an official university investigation prompted by a “backlash” following the student’s receipt of a “triumph cord” at his graduation. A reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer had requested the investigation materials as well as UC law enforcement records.

The Court of Claims ordered the university to turn over to the newspaper unredacted copies of the UC law enforcement records and the public files from the university’s investigation that haven’t been released already.

The ruling stated that the records are not protected by the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), nor are they exempt from disclosure under Ohio’s public records law, therefore the university improperly withheld them.

The student, William Houston, was awarded the triumph cord in early 2019. The honor is based on faculty nominations and bestowed on students who have overcome adversity. The university was loudly criticized for the decision to honor Houston because he was convicted in 2015 for a sex offense and is a registered sex offender.

The decision, handed down in October, overruled UC’s objections to a report and recommendations made by the Court of Claims special master, who reviews public records disputes.

News Media Asks for Police and Title IX Investigation Records
Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Max Londberg in January requested records that had been shared by a college police official with Andrea Goldblum, UC’s Title IX coordinator at the time. The reporter also requested public records from the investigation launched by Goldblum in February 2019 about Houston and the subsequent outcry arising from his criminal history.

The university denied the requests early this year, stating the law enforcement records that UC Police Lieutenant David Brinker gave to Goldblum and her investigative case are “education records” protected by FERPA from release. The university also claimed that parts of the newspaper’s requests were too vague.

The Enquirer filed a complaint with the Court of Claims, arguing it was being denied access to public records.

Law Enforcement Records Not Exempt from Release as Education Records
The court’s September report explained that while FERPA prohibits the release of education records, the law states that education records don’t include records of an educational institution’s law enforcement unit that are created by the unit, for a law enforcement purpose, and maintained by the unit.

In 2016, while assisting another law enforcement agency, Brinker obtained 2014 police reports from other universities and a municipality involving the student, and created a file for the information. In February 2019, at Goldblum’s request, the lieutenant shared the records with her.

“[T]he fact that Lt. Brinker later shared non-exempt law enforcement records with a UC employee in the Office of Gender Equity and Inclusion did not transform the copies retained by UCPD [police department] into ‘education’ records, and did not strip them of their status there as public records,” the court’s report stated. “The purposes of the Public Records Act would be thwarted if records of a law enforcement agency could be concealed merely by sharing them with an educational institution.”

The report added that FERPA neither requires nor bans an educational institution’s disclosure of its law enforcement records. However, because law enforcement records are public in Ohio, the state’s Public Records Act mandates their release.

Records Created after Graduation and before Attending School Not Education Records
Education records under FERPA also don’t include records created or received by the educational institution “after an individual is no longer a student in attendance and that are not directly related to the individual’s attendance as a student.” The court’s special master determined the records in Goldblum’s case file fall into this category.

“The request for the investigative case created by Andrea Goldblum ‘on 2/13/19 regarding William Houston and backlash that followed his reception of a triumph cord,’ apparently at graduation, dates her records as created after Houston ceased to be a student,” the court’s report stated. “Nor can police records that preceded a person’s university attendance, and become relevant only when his fitness for a graduation award is questioned, ‘directly relate to the individual’s attendance as a student.’”

Cincinnati Enquirer v. Univ. of Cincinnati, 2020-Ohio-4958. Case No. 2020-00144PQ.

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