The FOIA is a term for Freedom of Information Act Laws. If you go to a public university or college, your school falls under your state’s public records law. And a nifty exercise is to ask for a list of all public records requests filed for period of time. That means that you can find out what other people request. All public records requests are themselves public records. The school is supposed to keep a “log” of these requests. So that’s what you should ask for. You can see what a log looks like by Googling a big agency and FOIA Log.
Below, is a section of the FOIA log of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They make them available by month online.
Use the Student Press Law Center’s Public Records Request letter generator to give you the legal wording for your state’s public records law. It’s a super easy process. You will also want to track down who, in your university, handles public records requests. If you can’t figure that out, send it to the university president.
Make sure you ask for the name of the requestor, the organization the requestor represents, the date of the request, a summary of the request, and the status –whether it was granted, pending or denied.
Any documents your university has already released through a public records request, you should be able to get immediately.
The Centers for Disease Control recently announced a disturbing rise in suicide rates across the country. This might be a good time to look into mental health services at your school. Now, investigating mental health is difficult. Two federal laws keep deny you access to a lot of information: There’s HIPPA –the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 and there is FERPA — the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The first protects an individual’s health records and the other protects student educational records.
But you can still do a solid investigation. First off, ask for staffing levels at your health center and break down for physicians and mental health professionals. Ask for the budgets. You are entitled to both. Then do a per capita — divide those numbers by the total number of students enrolled at your school. Then see if you can find comparable figures for other schools in your system or state. Ask for the same numbers for five years ago and 10 years ago to see if staffing and spending has kept up with enrollment.
You might try crowdsourcing to find students who have used or tried to get help from the mental health system. Find the director of your local suicide prevention organization and hotline and see if they have been seeing an increase in students.
There are some good resources out there:
Reporting on suicide
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has guides for journalists.
You might also check out this story that the Yale Daily News did in 2016 on the experience on students who return to school after withdrawing for mental health reasons.
Check how safe your classrooms are. This is a good project for a large team. You might look at one building on campus. A science building is a good one because it often houses classes that all students are required to take at one time or another. Divide up the classrooms among the team members and create a form. You should check these things:
- Can a big student easily fit under each desk and is the desk sturdy enough to serve as protection against falling debris or a collapsed wall or ceiling?
- Do windows line a wall of the room next to student desks?
- Would students be easily able to exit the room in the case of an earthquake?
- Is heavy equipment like cameras and projectors safely bolted to walls and ceilings?