Officials from the College of Charleston have repeatedly denied requests for information about allegations of a sexual assault involving a female varsity softball player, arguing that federal law requires them to guard student data.
The Post and Courier filed requests under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, asking for an incident report containing identities of the suspects and for documents relating to the internal discipline of the four suspects.
The information is considered vital, as it would confirm or refute the crux of an argument presented by the alleged victim’s family: that the suspects are baseball players and are being protected because of that.
School officials would not say whether the suspects are athletes.
Caroline Cleveland, an attorney the school hired to handle the requests, wrote in a letter that the college is bound by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to withhold certain student records.
But FERPA states that records produced by a school’s police agency are not considered federally protected education data.
Cleveland wrote that the school would re-evaluate the requests after authorities closed their investigation.
That end came Nov. 9, and the newspaper renewed its requests for information about the three suspects who remain at the school and the one suspect who was expelled on the grounds that he violated a sexual conduct policy.
The school’s in-house attorney, Thomas Trimboli, also said that officials were concerned about naming the suspects when nobody had been arrested or charged in the case.
Withholding information was in the best interest of campus safety, he said.
In an age of campus shootings, such as the Virginia Tech massacre, it would be unwise to release the suspects’ identities or to even confirm whether they played varsity sports, he said. Doing so might prompt such “untoward conduct” from them, Trimboli said, though he said investigators had no evidence of that violent potential.
“There are many concerns, such as not doing anything that would impede or harm the investigation,” Trimboli said. “There are also safety concerns. You’ve seen stories about the shootings. Do you want to take that chance?”
Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association, said police agencies can withhold documents if they have legitimate concerns “based in reality” that their release could endanger someone’s safety or hurt the investigation.
But in the College of Charleston case, the suspects knew they were being accused, and the release of their names likely wouldn’t harm the investigation, Bender said.
And the school attorney’s argument about campus safety, he added, “sounds very bizarre.”