Paper sues Vt. colleges for disciplinary records

Lawsuit demands access to campus court hearings

VERMONT -- A St. Johnsbury newspaper has filed a lawsuit against the Vermont State Colleges system after one of the system's colleges refused to release student disciplinary information to the paper.

The Caldonian-Record filed a lawsuit last April against Lyndon State College and the Vermont State Colleges in Washington County Superior Court for violating the state's open-meetings and open-records laws when the schools refused to release detailed disciplinary records regarding crimes of violence or nonforcible sexual offenses that occurred on campus in the past five years. The newspaper is also seeking access to future disciplinary hearings and notice of when such hearings are held, as well as the records of those proceedings.

The Record says the findings, sanctions and even the names of the students involved in disciplinary proceedings should be public record and that the proceedings themselves should be public under the state's open-meetings law.

The schools argue that they are not required to hand over such information or conduct disciplinary hearings in public because student disciplinary information is not covered by the state freedom of information law and is protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that prohibits educational agencies from releasing student education records.

"It is clear that the policy underlying FERPA is the 'protection of privacy of parents and students,'" said the Vermont State Colleges in its brief. "Accordingly, any exception to FERPA must be read narrowly."

Philip White, an attorney for The Record, said federal law should never supercede state law when dealing with education, historically a state function.

"FERPA restricts the state's sunshine laws," White said. "And there is no more important function of local government than to be open to its citizenry."

The lawsuit stems from The Record's attempt to gain access to the disciplinary records of several students at Lyndon State College who were arrested for underage drinking in December 1999. The college ultimately provided the information regarding the hearing's findings and the punishments handed out but without the names of the students. The Record then asked the school, and later the state college system, for more detailed information.

"I'm never confident challenging the status quo, but I think we have a real strong argument under the open-meetings law," White said.

The court will now decide whether it wants to make a judgement from the bench or hear oral arguments.

reports, Winter 2000-01