MODESTO, CA: The Stanislaus branch of California State University found itself in the midst of a PR crisis two weeks ago after media reports uncovered that students may have falsified a survey that led the Scott Peterson double-murder trial to be moved to a different venue.
Students in a criminal justice class at the school were asked to handle a phone survey detailing respondents' attitudes about the defendant and the alleged murder of his pregnant wife, Laci. Findings from that survey were presented in court to bolster defense arguments that Peterson could not receive a fair trial in Modesto, a central California farming town where court proceedings began.
Soon after the judge ruled to move the case, nine Stanislaus students came forward to the Modesto Bee newspaper claiming they had made up the results to save time and money on the long-distance calls needed to accurately finish the survey.
The scandal quickly made national headlines, overwhelming the two-person communications department at the school.
"This one just hit us on the side of the head," said Don Hansen, the school's media relations specialist. "Friday [when the story broke] was probably our worst day because we were really going through it then. We had at least 20 calls."
Hansen said the school had little warning of the impending scandal, with reporters from the Modesto Bee calling only to ask about student disciplinary procedures, but not disclosing the topic of the article.
"We were wondering what's going on here," said Hansen of the Bee's inquiries.
After the Bee broke the story, the school put out a brief statement saying it was looking into the charges. Hansen and other school officials also did some broadcast and print interviews, but quickly decided to pull back and rely on official statements instead.
The school said it is investigating the charges and working to get out the message that it will take "several weeks or even months" to come to a final conclusion on the matter, a situation Hansen described as "frustrating" because "there isn't a whole lot of information we can give out now."
However, the communications team did arrange for the college president to do two interviews with the Bee and a public radio station to push the message that the school takes the charges seriously and will follow up.