Education Department issues guidelines for release of campus court information


Under new regulations, FERPA does not protect identity of students who commit violent crimes





WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Under new guidelines issued by the Department of Education in July, colleges and universities can no longer use the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act as justification for their refusal to release the results of certain campus disciplinary proceedings.

The new guidelines make it clear that schools do not violate FERPA -- a law enacted to protect the privacy of students' educational records -- if they release the names of students found guilty of violent crimes and nonforcible sex offenses in the campus court system, unless prevented from doing so by a state law or other legal mandate.

Since the rules took effect August 7, schools are now allowed to provide the final results of disciplinary proceedings in which a student is found to be in violation of school rules for allegedly committing a crime of violence or nonforcible sex offense. Although the student may have the option to appeal the finding, the guidelines state that schools do not have to wait for the appeals process to be completed before releasing the information.

"I'm very, very pleased that the Department of Education has decided that final results are when the decision is made and given to the perpetrators, prior to any appeals or reviews," said Carolyn S. Carlson, founder of the Society of Professional Journalists' Campus Courts Task Force. "That means that the campus media will be getting far more timely information than we had ever hoped for."

The new rules implement changes made to the 1998 Higher Education Act and seek to clarify how schools should interpret the law. By limiting the type of information that falls under FERPA protection, the regulations should prevent colleges from using the law to deny access to student disciplinary records, said Daniel Carter, vice president of the campus watchdog group Security on Campus.

"Colleges will no longer be able to exploit federal privacy laws to protect campus criminals," Carter said. "Doing so only protected the school's image while putting other students needlessly at risk."

The guidelines also give schools a clearer definition of the kinds of offenses for which campus court results can be provided. A complete listing of and descriptions for what crimes are considered crimes of violence is included among the regulations.

The guidelines also determine what information schools can release. This includes the student's name, details about the violation committed-including the institutional rules or code sections that were violated-along with any essential findings supporting the institution's conclusion that a crime was committed and a description of the disciplinary action taken by the institution, including its date of imposition and duration.

Carlson said these details should be specific enough to enable students to connect the punishment imposed to the crime committed.

"I think the student media, particularly, will now be able to get enough information out of the judicial offices to be able to follow up on important crimes that have occurred on campus," she said.

However, the guidelines do prevent the disclosure of victim and witness information. The regulations allow for disclosure of records for any proceeding dating back to October 7, 1998.

The new guidelines do not require colleges to release any of the information. But many public universities will be forced to disclose the documents under state open-records laws, and Carter said the new FERPA guidelines should give student journalists more access to those records.

"Student journalists need to be educated about these changes, as well as what their state law says so they will know what campus court records they have a right to, and if not a right to, what a school may legally release if they can make a compelling case," Carter said.

Carlson also offered advice on ways for student media to take advantage of the FERPA guidelines. First, she said, students should check with their campus judicial affairs offices and examine state open-records laws to see if they require schools to release the records.

If the state law is unclear, Carlson said students should ask their state attorney general's office to determine whether the law requires it. If the attorney general is unsure, Carlson suggested having a judge or the legislature address the law itself and make a determination.

She said student journalists should also press their schools for the release of information and details of crimes heard by campus judicial systems.

"The whole point of covering campus crimes is to let the campus community know what's going on in their midst so they can better protect themselves," Carlson said.


The complete guidelines are available on the Department of Education's Web site at: http://ocfo.ed.gov/Fedreg/finrule/q300/070600a.txt.


Fall 2000, reports