Latest Pima release shows extreme measures to hide Loughner info
Reporter: Forrest Carr
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Three things are apparent from the latest batch of Jared Lee Loughner related records that Pima College has released to KGUN9 News. One, in the hours and days after Loughner was arrested for the mass shootings in Tucson, students, teacher and administrators had plenty to say about him. Two, Pima Community College intends to keep those conversations and any information they contain about Loughner from the public. And three, in protecting Loughner's privacy -- and its own -- the college is invoking a federal law that even the government says does not prohibit the release of all such information.
Since the day after the shooting, Pima College has been invoking the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to justify its refusal to release information or answer questions about its handling of Loughner. As 9 On Your Side has been reporting over the past few weeks, in response to public records requests the college has been releasing every document in its possession containing the word "Loughner," one batch at a time. With the latest batch of 900 documents released late Friday, the college continued its practice of redacting any information about Loughner himself. But interestingly, the emails show that in justifying the secrecy the college has been stretching its interpretation of FERPA further and further over time.
An email that admissions director Michael Tulino sent to Chancellor Roy Flores and other administrators just hours after the shooting helps illustrate the point. Tulino wrote the memo to explain precisely which records FERPA allows the college to release about Loughner. But in releasing this email on Friday, the college redacted half of the information that Tulino had specifically cleared for public release, including Loughner's address and date of birth.
As earlier 9 On Your Side reporting has shown, Chancellor Roy Flores cited FERPA restrictions to justify his campus-wide media blackout issued the day after the shooting. The first internal mention of FERPA concerns documented so far is contained in an email cc'd to two administrators on the day of the shooting. The college redacted the author and the primary recipient of the email -- a fact that, in light of its practices to date, suggests that neither was a Pima Community College employee. The author states that anyone getting a call even from a law enforcement agency should check with campus police before answering. Then the author adds, "Of course, FERPA laws keep us from talking to others about him."
No, they don't. Generally speaking, FERPA protects written educational records. And by extension, FERPA would prevent an administrator from reading or relating certain information contained in those records, such as course grades, Social Security numbers, and so on. But FERPA does not prevent other forms of speech about students. The U.S. Department of Education spells out this point in its guidance to the public posted on its website, which reads in part, "... information that an official obtained through personal knowledge or observation, or has heard orally from others, is not protected under FERPA."
The college is also redacting the names of any student referenced in any of the Loughner documents. Its interpretation of FERPA is so extreme in that regard that it's even redacting the names of students when they appear in records provided to the college by an outside source.
An email from television station KVOA illustrates this point. On the day of the shooting, a student sent an email to KVOA's assignment desk expressing sadness over what had happened. When Pima College released that email in Friday's batch, it redacted most of the message. The released email read, "I took a [words redacted] class a semester ago at Pima's North Campus. [Sentence redacted.] What a sad ending to a young life. God bless the victims in this tragedy." The college also redacted the name and email address of the student from the message and also from KVOA's reply to the student.
There is no language in FERPA prohibiting the release of one student's observations or feelings about another student. Nor does FERPA prevent the release of student names.
The emails released Friday also show that even before administrators issued their official blackout on contact with the media, teachers were taking a cautious response. An exchange between writing instructor Sharrett Brown and NBC producer Azriel Relph illustrates this point. When Relph contacted Brown about Loughner on the day of the shooting, she responded, "I will contact you in the next few minutes. I will call on your cell." Nearly two hours later she wrote, "Well this has been longer than 'a few minutes' but I am waiting on permission to speak with you from my school. You will get information one way or the other though!" About an hour after that, she forwarded the entire exchange to a colleague and wrote, "I never called this person."
Emails released Friday also show one other perhaps understandable response to news that Loughner had attended college at Pima: embarrassment. Nursing instructor Ceanne Alvine wrote a coworker, "Please tell me we don't have a student by the name of Loughner."
The new emails also show how media coordinator Paul Schwalbach's media handling tactics evolved from providing little comment to providing none at all. On the day of the shooting, he was willing to give this tidbit of information to a New York Times reporter: "Pima Community College records indicate that Jared Lee Loughner was suspended on Sept. 29, 2010, immediately after the College became aware of a disturbing YouTube video. Mr. Loughner voluntarily withdrew from the College on Monday, Oct. 4."
But the next day, after Chancellor Flores ordered employees to refer all inquiries to Schwalbach, his standard response to most reporter queries about Loughner was to forward another copy of the college's official press release issued on the day of the shooting, and then invoke FERPA and sometimes FBI restrictions as a justification for withholding all other comment.
Friday's batch of emails brings the total number of documents released to date to about 4,000. Highlights from those emails and related 9 On Your Side coverage of them so far include:
-- Administrators briefly discussed holding a Loughner press conference, but the college's marketing chief objected to the college becoming a focus of the story and batted the suggestion down.
-- Flores and other administrators issued several emails ordering employees to refer all comment to Schwalbach, citing FERPA and also FBI restrictions.
-- Schwalbach and another administrator exchanged private emails ridiculing Loughner's math teacher, Ben McGahee, who was one of the very few employees to defy the college's media ban.
-- In a further defiance of the media ban, McGahee told 9 On Your Side this week that he holds no grudge against the college, and only hopes that what happened with Loughner can be prevented from recurring.
-- College employees had a tremendous hunger for information about Loughner. Many of the documents released so far consist of duplicates of media clippings, some from international news sources.
-- A few days after the shooting, the college began farming out all media inquiries to a third-party marketing company for handling, at taxpayer expense. The college has been responding to public records requests, but is refusing to allow interviews or to answer any questions about its handing of Loughner.
There is no indication in any of the records that Loughner ever received any mental health intervention while at Pima College, despite a series of bizarre and frightening campus incidents that led to a total of six police reports, culminating in his suspension. Some experts have suggested that such intervention could have made a difference.
One thing completely lacking from the heavily redacted pages released so far is any indication that Pima administrators asked, are asking, or plan to ask internal questions about Pima's handling of Loughner. Whether it has any intention of doing so is one of many questions from KGUN9 News that the college refuses to answer.
The Arizona Republic has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force Pima College to give up its Loughner files, on the grounds that the college is misapplying FERPA. The case is pending in Pima County Superior Court.