A pair of broken records

Meet two young student journalists whose schools are aging them quickly by acting slowly. And illegally.

For months, Florida’s Dylan Bouscher and Georgia’s David Schick have been trying to acquire some plain-vanilla public records from their public institutions. What should’ve been a mundane administrative task that took a week has mushroomed into a thermonuclear winter.

The result…

Two determined reporters – from a generation accused of technology-induced short attention spans – have been working with attorneys and refuse to give up. If anything, their schools’ slow-down tactics and silly excuses have taught them the value of fighting a long war…

When Dylan Bouscher first heard about the Clery Act, he was feeling good about his profession and his nation. Here’s a law that requires schools to reveal details about campus crime. But what keeps campus cops from lying in their so-called Annual Campus Security Report?

Bouscher decided to check into his school, Florida Atlantic University, after he learned this: “There was only one rape and one robbery reported on campus in 2011.” That’s among 28,000 students. Suspicious, no?

So Bouscher sought three years of campus police reports, which he planned to compare against the annual reviews. But FAU said those would cost him $17,000.

That’s because FAU insisted its lawyers must review every report. So upon advice of pro bono attorney Ana-Klara Anderson, Bouscher requested one lone, random report. He also asked an FAU alum to do the same. Both were delivered free of charge, with no attorney review. Busted. FAU lowered the price to $10,000. And so it went, excuses punctured by reporting, followed by new excuses.

“It’s been an agonizing four months of legal back-and-forth,” Bouscher says. “It’s down to a slightly-less-absurd $900 now.”

Bouscher is undaunted and even amused. “I can reflect on it now and laugh at myself for ever having expected less from this administration,” says the jaded 19-year-old, who has big plans for his summer break…

“Instead of wasting away in a lawn chair somewhere in the sands at Palmetto Park Beach, hopefully I’ll be holed up in the windowless newsroom on campus, making sure FAU police are following guidelines and keeping the university safe enough for other students – who will most likely be partying at the beach.”

If all politics are local, then all journalism is personal. That’s how David Schick decided to investigate a $16 million budget shortfall at Georgia Perimeter College.

“I was appointed editor-in-chief before the summer semester started, and I was taking summer classes when the news of the budget crisis hit,” Schick recalls. “When my adviser and mentor, David Simpson, became one of the casualities of the reduction in force, my motivation to find out what happened increased tenfold.”

But when he requested records to delve into the topic, weird stuff happened.

First, the school charged him $2,963 to forward him emails. When he got a volunteer lawyer who threatened to sue, the price tag was knocked down to $291. But then administrators printed out each email and then re-scanned them – which meant Schick couldn’t search them for keywords. Oh, and administrators alternately claimed they didn’t have the records he sought, then told him they were being used in an investigation.

“Obviously, this whole situation brings me great frustration,” Schick says. But it’s also given him great determination…

“I hope to be a lawyer once I finish my education. And due to this situation, I’d like to start a nonprofit organization to hold organizations accountable for adhering to their own open-records laws. I definitely enjoy being a reporter, and hope to have a solid career as a journalist before completing law school. But I think I’d enjoy going to court to fight for a truly free press more than anything.”

He’ll need to keep fighting: “I put a new open records request to Georgia Perimeter College this past Monday and got a response of $1,300 – for a list of positions.”

This attorney is unhappy.

Frank LoMonte is executive director of the Student Press Law Center just outside of Washington, D.C. He’s worked closely with both Bouscher and Schick. Unlike most attorneys, LoMonte speaks in plain English. So here’s him, talking crap about FAU…

It’s astonishing that in the year 2013, a police department can’t put its hands on incident reports — basic, foundational documents that are a staple of police work — without endless hours of searching. That’s a pretty remarkable commentary on the competence of this university and its police.

We’ve worked with colleges elsewhere that were able to compile the same information for a fraction of what FAU eventually arrived at — and that’s after our attorney volunteer, Ana-Klara Anderson, engaged in multiple back-and-forth haggling sessions to get the initial inflated price down to a fraction of the “sticker price.”

Police incident reports should be sitting in a binder on a bookshelf with a total retrieval cost of whatever time is required to walk across the room. This isn’t the LAPD — it’s not like the FAU police department is responding to hundreds of felonies a day. If the agency is so disorganized that it literally can’t find its own incident reports, the public shouldn’t be paying the price of that incompetence (or deliberate opaqueness).

And here’s LoMonte on Schick and Georgia Perimeter College…

David Schick has shown amazing creativity and tenacity in pursuing records about a story that is really the story for the entire Georgia Perimeter community — how did the college get itself deeply into debt, who knew about it, and why wasn’t it stopped sooner?

The University System of Georgia literally cannot keep its own lies straight anymore, having at various times told David both that the documents were secret because they were being used in an ongoing investigation and also that they didn’t have them.

First, the state tried to make him go away with a laughably inflated bill that, after help from a terrific volunteer lawyer, Dan Levitas, we were able to negotiate down to pennies on the dollar. Having failed in that strategy, the state is just going into the stall and hoping David will graduate, or maybe die of old age. But to his credit, David has his jaws clamped down on this one and he’s not letting go.

These advisers are proud.

David Simpson is still Schick’s “mentor,” even if he’s no longer his official adviser. Simpson was either laid off for budget reasons or fired for journalistic reasons, depending who you ask. (And if you ask me, it was for the aggressive journalism he taught.) Here’s what he says about Schick…

David Schick turned into an open-records bulldog during his time at The Collegian. He also believed in shoe leather, so he would make inconvenient trips downtown to the Board of Regents office to press his requests in person and build relationships. I don’t have the analytics, but his reporting last summer in the aftermath of 200-plus layoffs got heavy readership and buzz among faculty and staff.

David was among quite a few students I met at GPC who caught fire and did great work after being exposed to real-world journalism at the student newspaper. Not incidentally, those students served their audience by reporting on serious issues at their college. 

Dan Sweeney advises FAU’s newspaper. Before that, he spent most of his career in alternative journalism, most notably at Village Voice-owned weeklies. So Bouscher’s surreal investigation really appeals to him…

This swiftly metastasized into a new story about student journalists’ access to public records – especially once the newspaper received an estimated cost in the low five figures, after a very long wait. Through it all, and through the subsequent negotiations between the university’s lawyer and a lawyer working pro bono, Dylan kept one eye on the final prize – the Clery Act story – but also followed the records requests through all their twists and turns, realizing that he had a second story on access to public records.

When the university finally agreed to drop its $17,000-plus price for three years of police records down to $900, Dylan was practically salivating at the mouth. He never lost hope or focus, and I expect the paper to have a great story come fall semester because of it.

So what happens now? Stay tuned.

We have not yet begun to fight.

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