University spokesman claims federal law prevents sharing any demographic details, but free speech expert disagrees
American University officials refuse to share details on a suspect who is accused of writing “Black people suck” on a whiteboard recently.
Officials at the Washington, D.C. university announced that they had identified the suspect but would not provide information to The College Fix on their race or gender.
The email to the campus community did not specify what was written, but the campus paper The Eagle reported it had obtained photos that showed the words “Black people suck” were written on a whiteboard in Bender Library.
“Due to federal privacy law, we cannot disclose personal records or details. The message sent to the AU community on Monday contains our full statement on the matter,” spokesman Matthew Bennett informed The Fix on Feb. 22.
The Fix asked for clarity on which specific federal law prevents sharing the race of a suspect.
“FERPA requires us to maintain confidentiality of student records and various employment laws require confidentiality of employee records,” Bennett said in response. “Identifying information about a person is considered part of that record.”
Adam Goldstein with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression told The Fix that, in general, federal privacy law would allow for the university to share identifying information such as race as long as someone could not reasonably figure out who an individual is based on that information.
“Broadly speaking, race and gender aren’t going to be personally identifiable information, especially not on a campus with 14,000 students,” the attorney with the free speech group told The Fix. “If a reasonable member of the school community wouldn’t be able to tell who specifically did this based on the race and gender, FERPA shouldn’t apply.”
Bennett shared the email that school officials sent out to the campus community on Feb 20. The email stated:
A little more than a week ago, racist words were found written on a dry erase board in a second-floor room in Bender Library. Our immediate investigation identified an individual who is potentially responsible. It is unacceptable that anyone would intentionally cause pain in our community through this kind of hateful act. This incident is particularly harmful to our Black community members during this important celebration of Black History Month.
“The words were reported to library staff and AUPD. They immediately responded, documented the scene, and removed the writing as quickly as possible,” the message from administrators stated. “We reviewed video surveillance and examined evidence that helped identify the individual. Based on the video footage, the words were present for less than 90 minutes until they were discovered, reported, documented, and removed.”
The email came from Fanta Aw, vice president of undergraduate enrollment, campus life, and inclusive excellence and from Bronté Burleigh-Jones, the chief financial officer. The Fix contacted both for more information about the suspect, but neither responded to a Feb. 22 email.
“The matter has been referred to the Dean of Students’ office, and the resolution process is currently ongoing,” the email stated. “This work includes engaging the community members involved, educating about the impact of such actions on the whole community, and determining if violations of our policies or code of conduct occurred.”
“Racism is despicable and has no place in any community,” the pair concluded. “We have ongoing work to build an inclusive society and address harm and bias when they occur.”
American University police did not respond to an email from The College Fix sent on Feb. 22. The Fix asked for the race and sex of the suspect and what their relationship was to the university.
This is not the first time the private university has shared minimal details of an investigation. It closed an investigation into several Nazi symbols etched into a bathroom stall in September 2021 and labeled the results “inconclusive.”
IMAGE: American University