Montana Supreme Court rules school board should have released records of disciplinary action

Newspaper not interested in BB-shooting students' identities, court rules

MONTANA -- The Montana Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that a school board was wrong to deny a local newspaper access to anonymous records identifying disciplinary action taken against students.

The case centers around two students of the Cut Bank Public School District who were disciplined in September 2005 for shooting other students with plastic BB's on school property, according to the court's opinion.

The School Board met in a closed session to determine what punishment the students would be given, and instead of following their previous practice of announcing the punishment in an open meeting while keeping the student's identities anonymous, released no information to the public, the opinion says

Leanne Kavanagh, editor of the local Cut Bank Pioneer Press, requested documentation "relating to the disciplinary actions taken against the students involved." Kavanagh did not request the student's names and "specifically asked that the students be identified by assigned numbers or that names be redacted."

The board refused, citing privacy concerns, and the two parties filed petitions with the local district court to determine whether the records should be disclosed.

The district court ruled for the school board, saying federal law prohibited the board from disclosing, "the names of the students, any violations committed and any actions imposed" without the student's consent. The district court based its decision almost entirely on the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, the Montana Supreme Court's decision says.

The district court also held that FERPA "preempts any Montana constitutional or statutory law with respect to the disclosure of such records or results."

But the Montana Supreme Court disagreed, concluding that FERPA does not prevent the public release of student disciplinary records with identifying information redacted. The court also concluded "the discipline imposed by the Board on the students of the school ... is a matter of public concern."

The justices based a majority of their decision that the Pioneer Press had standing to sue the school board on last year's ruling in Fleenor v. Darby School District, which said an individual who could not show direct harm from secret school board meetings had no grounds to sue under Montana open meetings laws.

The court said the newspaper adequately showed that obtaining the records were "necessary for Pioneer's work."

The opinion also states that the Pioneer Press' request for the redacted documents "was not clearly outweighed by any privacy interests at issue."

"It is clear the Pioneer is not requesting the identity of the students involved in the BB shooting incident," the court's opinion says. "Rather, it simply wants to know what disciplinary action the Board took."

By Scott Sternberg, SPLC staff writer

Case: Board of Trustees, Cut Bank Pub. Sch. v. Cut Bank Pioneer Press, No. DA 06-0074, 2007 WL 1334561 (Mont. May 8, 2007).