Updated: Oct 22 2014
As your high school newspaper's top investigative reporter, you are always keeping your eye out for a good scoop. During the week, you notice a few peculiar things:
It's now Friday and you are hot on the trail of all these school happenings. After all, the public has a right to know about these things and personally you really miss that Slinky. So you go to your principal's office to talk to him about your various experiences. But to your surprise, you find out that Mr. Belding is in Hawaii for the next month — something about an educators' conference. Now what do you do?
While the above examples are meant to be humorous, you may be faced with similar real-life situations that are anything but funny and require serious investigation. Fortunately, many of the questions raised by our examples could be answered by locating and reviewing various pubic records and reports kept by most school districts or other government agencies, including:
These records are generally open to the public and should be released voluntarily by school and/or government officials, assuming such records exist, though the specific type of documents and information available can vary by state and even by school.
For example, some states require officials to compile more detailed crime information or a more in-depth building maintenance plan than other states. Likewise, some state and school officials may be more cooperative and accommodating than others. Consequently, although most of these records should be readily available, you should be prepared to courteously, but firmly assert your right to review these records under your state's open records law in case you are denied access to them.
Every state has its own open records law. All laws, however, essentially say that it is the public's right to know what their government officials — including public school officials — are up to. An open records law recognizes that one of the most effective ways citizens can do this is by being permitted access to most government records and documents.
Some states have taken this commitment to openness seriously. These states have allowed few exceptions to their law and have adopted enforcement measures that encourage compliance. Other states have been notoriously lax in following through on their promises to open up the governmental process to public scrutiny. These states have allowed for broad, seemingly catch-all exemptions, which have allowed government officials to skirt the law with very little threat of penalty. Most states, however, fall somewhere in the middle.
An informal request for the relevant records should be enough to get the information you want. Just asking the appropriate school or government official politely should be all that it takes. However, if your informal request is not successful, you may be forced to invoke the power of your state's open records law by making a formal request in writing.
In this letter, you will want to describe the records you are looking for in as much detail as possible, cite your state's open records law and ask that you be provided with a written explanation should your request be denied. To make things easy, the Student Press Law Center Web site includes a free, automated letter generator that allows users to create a formal public records request letter tailored to their specific state's law. Find it at: www.splc.org/foiletter
Once your letter is complete, submit it to the person or office that you believe is responsible for maintaining the records you seek (for example, for your school's budget report, try your school's central administration office). Many of the state laws require agencies to respond to your request within a specified time (generally 3 to 10 working days); others only require a response within a "reasonable" time.
Since the information available may vary by state, this article provides only a general guide about what types of records and information may be available to high school journalists.
For more specific information about what your state does or does not require under its freedom of information laws, check out the excellent 50-state (and the District of Columbia) Open Government Guide , published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. A one-of-a-kind, comprehensive resource published specifically for journalists, no newsroom — student or commercial — should be without it. You can view it free at: www.rcfp.org/ogg.
Also, students at private high schools should be aware that their schools might not be required to release the same information as public schools. However, if the information you seek is held by a government agency (for example, cafeteria inspection records maintained by your county's health department) and not just by your school (such as a school budget report), the information is available from the government agency regardless of whether you attend a public or private school.
Your concern about the mousetraps has sparked your interest in doing an investigation of the school cafeteria. Your two major concerns in this area are whether the cafeteria is meeting sanitation requirements and whether its food is meeting nutritional requirements. Fortunately, records are maintained about both of these matters.
Cafeteria inspection records detailing health violations and problem areas should be available to the public upon request at your local food inspection office, which is a government agency. Try looking up "Inspections" under your county in the government pages of your telephone directory. Or call your state health department and ask them where you can find the records you want. They should be able to direct you to the appropriate place.
Most states require their school cafeterias and other food facilities to be inspected at least once or twice a year. The number of inspections conducted upon a particular food facility will often depend upon that facility's "risk profile" or, in other words, on the results of past inspections of that facility.
Most food facility inspections are conducted at the local level by county or city health inspection officials rather than by the state health department. Although the state will provide minimum requirements, some cities or counties may impose stricter requirements in their areas.
Another record in which you might be interested is your school's nutritional program review report. Most schools are required to fill out a report (and in some cases, several reports) that show whether your school is meeting federal and state nutritional requirements. However, this form is complicated so you may want to talk to a school official about what the record means.
A copy of this report should be located at your school system's Food and Nutritional Service Department, probably at the district's central office. If you have difficulty locating these records, try contacting your state's education department, which may either have a copy of the completed forms or may be able to direct you as to where to find this information.
Too afraid to take the bus to school anymore but too lazy to walk to school, you are eager to get to the bottom of the bus story.
While the federal government establishes safety guidelines and sets manufacturing standards for school buses, once the bus is on the road, state laws and regulations kick in. According to the National Association for Pupil Transportation, school bus safety vehicle inspection programs vary greatly from state to state. Some states have no formal inspection requirements. Others have very specific, thorough guidelines that require regular inspections by certified third-parties. Most states fall somewhere in between, however, and require that each school bus be inspected about twice a year.
School bus inspection records are usually maintained at the county level and should be available at the district transportation office. In some states, such records may also be available at the state level.
Student journalists interested in obtaining these records should contact their county transportation office. If you cannot find the number, ask your state's Department of Education Transportation Division. The School Transportation News Web site maintains a national list of contact information, including links to state databases, where available, that maintain some school bus safety information online.
Because of the large number of records (each bus is individually inspected and, generally, a separate record is created for each) and the high cost of photocopying them, you may find it easier and cheaper to set up an appointment to personally inspect the records. Further, while not all schools compile them, you should ask whether or not your bus system creates a periodic summary of inspection findings for its entire fleet.
After some investigation, it turns out that you are not alone in your experiences with the elevator as friends recount their war stories with the mechanical beast.
Finding out information about your school's elevators and about other maintenance issues at your school may be easier than you think. Most school systems conduct their own building inspections in order to determine how to allocate its resources. These reports, sometimes called maintenance plans, should be available at public schools. You should find them at your district's central administration office or there may be a separate office for "facilities operations," which maintains these records.
Additionally, a copy of your school's building inspection report may also provide you with the information you are looking for. These reports will detail the problems with building maintenance, including electrical, mechanical and plumbing concerns as well as problems with the elevators. The reports might also include information on handicap accessibility.
In addition to the school's own inspections, state or local governments typically also require a sanitation inspection, a fire safety inspection, an asbestos survey and/or elevator inspections. These records may be available at your district's central office or you may have to contact your state's Education Department in order to find out where these records are kept
Information concerning the maintenance of your school building may also be found in your school's accreditation report, which is discussed later in this article.
To see what aspects of building maintenance are priorities to your school, you may also want to check out what your school is spending on building maintenance by looking at your school's budget, which is discussed next.
A school's budget report contains a wealth of information that no student news organization should be without. With the budget in hand, you can find out what your school's priorities are, how your school spends its money and how much money it generates in revenue. The report should list the salaries of many school employees and would show you if the school paid for your principal's trip to Hawaii. It would also, for example, let you compare how much was spent last year on new books for the library and for new equipment for the football team. The report may also include information concerning enrollment, pupil-teacher ratios and per pupil cost.
Public school budget reports are issued annually and are open to the public. Copies of your school district's budget should be available at your district's central administration office. You may also be able to find copies posted on the district's Web site or at your public library.
And as long as you are on a roll, it is worth pointing out that school budgets are generally discussed and approved by your school board, which holds regular meetings throughout the year. By law, these meetings — with a few very specific exceptions — are open to the public and might be worth covering.
Private school students may have a tougher time getting information on the financial inner-workings of their school. Hopefully, since you (thanks Mom and Dad) pay the school's bills with your tuition, school officials will voluntarily provide you with information on how school money is being spent, including official budget statements. They are probably not, however, legally required to do so. If they put up a stink, you can ask to see a copy of the school's IRS Form 990, the federal tax return required of all nonprofit organizations. This form will contain, among other things, useful information on school income and expenses, salary information and information about school investments. Under federal law, the Form 990, unlike a private school's school budget, must be made available to anyone who asks to see it during the school's normal business hours. Copies may also be available at www.guidestar.org, which maintains a huge database of nonprofit organizations' Form 990's. More information about the IRS Form 990 is available in the Student Press Law Center's packet, "IRS Form 990: A Public Record for the Private School Journalist."
Given your hypothetical week, you probably wonder how your school ever received its stamp of approval and how your school plans to address these situations. This information may be found in your school's accreditation report.
Copies of your school's accreditation report should be available at your district's central administration office and/or on its Web site. Some districts may even keep a copy of it in the public library.
Most American public schools are accredited by one of six regional accrediting associations in the country, such as the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools (which covers primary and secondary schools in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington). Although the six regional accrediting agencies are all private, non-profit, independent associations with varying standards, most accreditation reports should contain similar information. Once these reports are sent to your school, they should be public information. Included among the general areas examined during a school's accreditation are: the curriculum, the school's mission, the library facilities, the guidance program and building maintenance.
Though the accreditation process can vary by region, most follow a three-step procedure. First, schools will conduct a "self-study" in which the total school program will be evaluated by teachers, administrators, students and parents at each school. Next, an evaluation of the school's program will be done by a visiting committee of professional educators who are supposed to provide an unbiased review of the school's self-study. Finally, the first two steps culminate in the formation of a school improvement plan, which includes what specific measures the school will take to improve.
Accreditation periods can vary depending on the findings of the accreditation body. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which accredits schools in California and Hawaii, normally looks at schools every six years unless specific concerns need to be addressed.
With all the distractions involved in your hypothetical week, you begin to wonder whether your school's academic performance is below the state and national averages. But how can you find out if this is so?
That information and other academic data will be available in your school's academic performance report and other school reports.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, every state, district or school that receives federal education funding is required to compile and publish for public distribution a detailed "report card" that includes a school's and district's standardized test scores, graduation rates and other indicators that demonstrate whether or not a school is making adequate yearly progress. All states and almost all schools now make such information available online and it should be fairly easy to track down through either your state Education Department or school district's Web site. Alternatively, you can find links to school performance information for all 50 states at www.psk12.com
State or local school district reports concerning a school's academic achievements, which in some cases may include more information than required by federal law, may also sometimes be available. Such reports might include SAT test score comparisons, teacher-pupil class ratios, drop out statistics, the number of students in each grade level and some financial data.
Your investigation into whether your school has a crime problem may be your most challenging. Many schools are reluctant to release their crime statistics and few states require schools to issue detailed crime reports.
According to the national Center for the Prevention of School Violence (CPSV), eight states (Alabama, California, Delaware, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia) required detailed school crime reports as of 2007. In Virginia, for example, the annual report on crime and violence compiled by the state education department includes a breakdown of approximately two-dozen categories of crimes and the number of incidents reported by different schools in the state.
Other states may have different, often less comprehensive, reports. Maryland, for example, compiles a suspension offenses report, which lists the total number of incidents (for example, possession of dangerous substances or weapons) receiving school suspensions. This list, however, does not distinguish between crimes and other conduct resulting in suspensions. To find out what type of report your state requires, contact your state education department or visit the CPSV Web site.
Also, even though some states do not require schools to issue a report on crime to the state education department, schools should still have some records concerning crimes on campus since they must report them to law enforcement officials. In some cases, for example, your school district might compile an annual statistical report that tracks their crime problem. Where they exist, these records should be available, but might require a formal request to your school district office or local law enforcement agency. In many cases, as discussed below, federal and/or state law allows officials to redact information from such records that would identify a minor.
Though the law recognizes a citizen's interest in knowing about the activities of his government, the law also realizes that this interest must sometimes yield to an individual's right to privacy. Therefore, probably the most common reason that a school or state official would deny your request is that it would identify students or other individuals by name.
Examples of records that might identify individuals by name include personnel records, disciplinary reports and bus driver background checks. In some (but definitely not all) cases, the law may permit school or government officials to withhold such records unless redacting or blacking out information in the report can secure individuals' privacy interests. For example, crime incident reports involving minors can often be released after law enforcement or school officials have deleted the name of all individuals involved. The report would still have value to the reporter, however, since it will provide the official description of the incident as well as where and when the incident took place.
Finally, a federal law known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), restricts the release of a student's "education records" by school officials without student (or, in some cases, parental) consent if such records would individually identify that student. Unfortunately, FERPA's requirements are frequently misunderstood — or abused — by school officials. If you encounter resistance based on FERPA (or for that matter, any other reason), ask that the government official provide a specific (and preferably, written) reason for their denial. If you still have questions, contact the Student Press Law Center for more information.
High school journalists — like all journalists — should not be content to print only what falls into their laps. There is a great wealth of information about your high school that is ripe for discovery. Go find it. Explore the different records and information for yourself and do not be intimidated or discouraged if you are initially denied access to the information you want. Sometimes school and government officials will not take student journalists' requests for information seriously. Remain courteous and "professional," but challenge this conduct. Remind school and government officials of their responsibilities to operate openly. And, when necessary, assert your rights under your state's open records law. If you run into glitches, ask your adviser for help or contact the Student Press Law Center.