Federal agency in charge of Haskell takes nearly a year to fulfill FOIA request — and redacts most of it

Pictured are several pages from the heavily redacted documents that the Bureau of Indian Education sent the Journal-World on Friday, April 21, 2023, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The federal agency that oversees Haskell Indian Nations University’s operations fulfilled a Freedom of Information Act request from the Journal-World Friday — nearly a year after the request originally was submitted.

That agency, the Bureau of Indian Education, acknowledged the FOIA request last year on May 3. That was around the same time the Journal-World was reporting on the lack of communication from the BIE as it searched for a permanent president for the university, and about a month before student-athletes with Haskell’s cross country program told the Journal-World they were made to sign a no-contact order stemming from a federal investigation of the team’s former coach, Clay Mayes.

The BIE abided by the statute’s requirements for responding to FOIA requests; by law, federal agencies must respond to such requests within 20 working days of receiving them, but that just means acknowledging receipt and noting whether the agency is capable of fulfilling the request. What’s not clear, however, is whether anything in federal statute dictates just how long federal agencies have to fulfill a FOIA request.

The Journal-World’s FOIA request sought any communications, records, investigation forms or formal complaints lodged by or related to Mayes and another Haskell employee, Judith Gipp, from September 2021 to May 3, 2022. The BIE’s response was a 91-page PDF file composed largely of partially redacted emails. Nearly 30 pages are either completely redacted or leave only a few words legible from elements like email signatures or dates and times.

BIE FOIA officer Justin Davis, in a letter included with the agency’s response to the FOIA request, explains that those exemptions were either because of “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” or protected law enforcement records that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

“Because the harm to personal privacy is greater than whatever public interest may be served by disclosure, release of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of the privacy of these individuals and we are withholding it under (the exemption),” Davis’ letter reads.

Another 30 pages of the file seem to be related to concerns about admission applications from prospective student-athletes raised during March of last year.

The remaining third or so of the file includes documents like the no-contact order students were made to sign in November of 2022, redacted to obstruct the words “Fall 2021 Cross Country Team,” “No-Contact Order” and “cross country coach.” The Journal-World was able to determine which parts of the letter were blacked out because student-athletes on the team shared a copy without any redactions last year. There’s also a “memorandum of clarification” dated March 14, 2022, which presumably was sent to Mayes asserting he was to have no contact with any student with the team or with any prospective students identified as possible recruits.

A memorandum detailing the no-contact agreement Haskell cross country athletes were made to follow is pictured, with identifying information redacted. A group of athletes told the Journal-World they had to sign the forms and describe being subject to harassment by current administrators both on and off campus.

Other emails that follow in the file reference a “letter of concern” email from student athletes — sent in late October of 2021 — that the redacted sender calls “concerning.” Shortly after on that same day in another email, Tonia Salvini, who then was the university’s vice president of university services, mentions plans to discuss working with students “to address their needs.” About a week later, Salvini’s name was listed on the no-contact order letter student-athletes were made to sign as Haskell’s acting president.

The file also includes a heavily redacted investigative plan that was initiated at the end of 2021 and stemming from a complaint filed at the end of October.

A press contact with the BIE told the Journal-World Friday afternoon that she’d need more time to respond to a question clarifying how long it usually takes for the agency to fulfill FOIA requests from the media or members of the public.


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