University hall

Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Former Managing Editor for Multimedia

In a single word — “validated” is how Steven Snyder-Hill felt when a special master determined Ohio State violated state public records law when it intentionally withheld records from him about former university physician Dr. Richard Strauss’ sexual abuse of students.

Snyder-Hill was one of those students who were sexually abused by Strauss while Strauss was a team doctor for 17 varsity sports and a physician at the university’s Student Wellness Center from 1978-98. During his tenure, Strauss sexually abused at least 177 students and student-athletes during and an independent investigation determined the university failed to act when the abuse was reported.

Snyder-Hill said he believes the university lied to him and other survivors and victims of Strauss, even after the independent investigation was released.

“[Ohio State] never validated us, and the court did, and it feels so good,” Snyder-Hill said.

The special master in a report Tuesday wrote that the university intentionally withheld records from Snyder-Hill for five months and that the university had no legal standing for the delay in giving the records to Snyder-Hill. A special master is appointed by the court after someone files a public records complaint against a public office, alleging that the office violated Ohio’s public records law, and makes a recommendation on ruling and action to a judge.

In a response to the court, Ohio State admitted that it intentionally withheld the records, but did not notify Snyder-Hill of its decision to do so and did not cite any legal reason to deny the release of the records. 

Snyder-Hill made a records request Dec. 13, 2018, asking for any record that had to do with a mediation between the university and himself around 1995, following the abuse by Strauss.

Ohio State’s public records office responded the same day and asked Snyder-Hill to clarify his request, which he did on Dec. 21, 2018. 

On Dec. 26, 2018, the university’s public records director thanked Snyder-Hill for the clarification and said in an email, “We will process this request as quickly as possible.”

But a week earlier on Dec. 20, 2018, the university had already pulled the records that would fulfill Snyder-Hill’s request, according to the report.

“OSU then decided, without advising Snyder-Hill, that it would not release the records until the investigation report was released,” the special master wrote in the court’s report.

Snyder-Hill filed his complaint against the university May 15, according to the report.

For five months after he first requested the mediation records, Snyder-Hill followed up on his request, reminding the university of his want for a timely response.

“I don’t understand how a public university can just ignore a sunshine public records request. This is against the law. My concern is that you are stalling (illegally),” Snyder-Hill said in an email to the university’s public records office, referring to Ohio’s public records and open meetings laws, also known as the “Sunshine Laws.”

Ohio State declined to provide any reason for the delayed release of public records, according to the special master’s report.

Ohio public records law requires public offices to respond to requests in a “reasonable period of time.” A reasonable period of time “depends upon all the pertinent facts and circumstances of the case,” the special master wrote.

On May 17, 2019, when Ohio State released the findings from the Perkins Coie investigation, the university sent Snyder-Hill the records — 16 pages — he requested in December 2018.

The special master wrote that Ohio State had no legal reason to delay the request for 155 days.

Ohio State, in a response to the court, said the university chose to hold the records to prevent the piece-by-piece “disclosure of information that could subject survivors to unnecessary re-traumatization or have a chilling effect on their participation with the investigation.”

The special master determined that there is no legal exemption for “re-traumatization.”

University spokesperson Ben Johnson restated in an email the investigators’ concerns to “uncover the truth of what happened decades ago,” if the records were released piece-by-piece.

The university also said in its response to the court that Snyder-Hill’s request happened while “there were dozens of other pending public records requests concerning the allegations against Strauss.” However, “the Supreme Court has expressly rejected the burden of dealing with many public records requests as an excuse for delay,” the special master wrote.

Ohio State correctly stated that if the university released the record to one person, it would become a record for all, although this “does not constitute a legal justification to delay release of the record,” the special master wrote.

“The gravamen of this and the other arguments appears to be that OSU knows better than a survivor when his interests would best be served by disclosure,” the special master wrote. “Of particular concern here, OSU does not offer these arguments as public records exceptions but only as what it thought was ‘reasonable’ and ‘the right thing to do.’”

Snyder-Hill questions who will be held accountable for the records law violation. 

“That’s what’s so frustrating about Ohio State, is nobody ever is accountable; there’s not one person named that’s accountable,” he said. “That’s exactly how Strauss happened. Everybody kind of looks the other way or they think we’re too big or nobody takes responsibility. The only thing that OSU is missing is another Strauss from this happening again.”