Student journalists at Tarleton State University were forced to wait 15 months before they could tell students and others about a potential school shooter who was disarmed by campus police, because officials at the Stephenville campus dragged their feet in turning over the police incident report.
A story published this week by the Texan News Service, Tarleton’s student news agency, chronicled an incident in November 2018 in which campus police received a call about a student who was upset over a breakup with his girlfriend.
The man had talked about harming himself or others. Police found him on campus in his truck “preparing” to load a weapon, the police report states. Officers handcuffed the man, and he was taken by police to a local hospital for evaluation. He was not arrested.
In spring 2019 the Texan News filed an open records request for the police report. The university refused to release the record and, as required, appealed to the state attorney general’s office for an opinion on whether it could legally withhold the document.
After that, the situation is murky.
Texan News received the incident report on Feb. 5, 2020, almost a year after the request. It’s unclear why university officials waited so long to provide it.
“Clearly the AG told the university that it had to release the report,” said Dan Malone, advisor to the Texan News. But he was not sure about when the AG ruling was communicated to the school or why the school sought to withhold what is considered a standard, releasable document.
The withholding of a record that most police departments readily provide follows a pattern of obfuscation by the Texas A&M system, to which Tarleton belongs. An investigation in 2013 by the Student Press Law Center found the Texas A&M system often used the state’s public records law to delay rather than to prevent release of records.
State law allows governments to refer public records requests to the AG’s office for an opinion on whether the records need to be released by law, which can delay release for months.
The study by the law center found that the A&M system referred requests to the AG’s office 125 times in 2013, then withdrew the request for opinion in 31 percent of cases –- enough to delay the release and reduce the immediacy of, or even the need for, a news story.
“We have seen this tactic being used by universities, and by Texas A&M in particular,” said Frank LoMonte, who served as executive director of the Student Press Law Center from 2008 to 2017. “These universities know very well that these reports are public records. In this case they sent this to the AG’s office knowing they had no reason for denying [it]. “
The university declined to address its actions in a statement to the Texan News.
“Tarleton has no comment, pending ongoing conversations between The Texas A&M University System and the Office of the Attorney General,” a Tarleton spokeswoman told the news agency.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].