Wait for it: Otterbein University complies with records request after nearly three month wait

From Otterbein 360: The Otterbein Police Department, in collaboration with members of Otterbein’s administration, has for the first time fulfilled a records request in full almost three months after an order demanding their release was issued by the Ohio Supreme Court.

The records at issue were the subject of a lawsuit filed by former Otterbein360 news editor Anna Schiffbauer against OPD, which had been withholding the records from the public. OPD and members of Otterbein’s administration stated that Otterbein was not required to release records to the public as a private entity. Schiffbauer’s case said that since OPD serves a governmental function, with officers that have the same authority as their municipal counterparts, they must be subject to public records law. On May 21, The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of Schiffbauer and ordered OPD chief Banaszak to release police records.

Following the decision, Otterbein360 submitted a request for incident reports held by OPD. Initially, Banaszak agreed to comply with the request and released three misdemeanor incident reports at random to demonstrate compliance. OPD redacted only the Social Security numbers of those named in the reports in accordance with public records law.

On June 1, OPD contacted Otterbein360 stating that the request could not be fulfilled because the university was still working to determine what information to release in compliance with state and federal law.

In addition, Banaszak advised that the request was too large and time-consuming to be fulfilled in a reasonable time. Ohio public records law states allows for requests to be denied if they are overly broad. Otterbein360 withdrew its original request.

On Jul 9, Otterbein360 made a revised request, which comprised of 27 incident reports of a serious or otherwise important nature. Banaszak responded to the request stating that the reports would be sent to the Westerville Police Department records department for redactions. Banaszak said four days later that the reports would be ready in a week.

On Jul 29, Banaszak invited Otterbein360 staff to a meeting to explain the university’s reasoning for not releasing the records. In a meeting between Otterbein360 reporter Logan Meyst and Banaszak, Banaszak said the university was still considering federal and state regulations such as the Violence Against Women Act and the Clery Act in deciding what information to release.

“We don’t want to release info unless it’s absolutely accurate. If we release something that violates someone’s rights then obviously we can be liable for that,” Banaszak said.

Banaszak said Otterbein was struggling to obtain legal advice on what information to redact in the reports they released, stating that the Attorney General’s office had declined to provide guidance. Banaszak said Otterbein was seeking legal help but did not specify a date the reports would be released.

Scott Fitzgerald, Director of Human Resources, Title IX coordinator, in an email, said that Otterbein was attempting to balance students’ privacy with the rights of public records requesters.

“Today, Otterbein is in the situation where Clery requires universities to protect the identity of the victim’s name in timely notices to campus of danger by prohibiting putting the victim’s name in the notice yet public record advocates are stating that the record that triggered that timely warning must have the victim’s name un-redacted,” Fitzgerald said, citing the Clery Act.

“FERPA, on its face, does not apply to law enforcement records. There’s absolutely zero FERPA issue here and there’s really no Clery Act issue here, either,” John Greiner, a Cincinnati-based attorney who represented Schiffbauer and other clients in open government lawsuits, said.

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