High school principal cites FERPA, Hazelwood to remove story from student publication

TEXAS -- An article written for last month's student newspaper at Cypress Ridge High School, in Houston, Texas, never made it past the desk of the Principal Claudio Garcia.

"He showed no respect for my story and no respect for our mission as the student press," said sophomore Tara Cobler, who investigated a story about Brett Gray, a student who was removed from school last November. The story was not published in the Rampage, the Cy-Ridge student newspaper, after Garcia refused to comment for the article and "shut down the story," according to Cobler.

Cobler said that Garcia stated this was a privacy issue.

"FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) does not apply to me, it applies to school officials," she said to Garcia during one of two meetings about her article, "and I had Brett's mom and his dad's permission. Neither the parent nor the kid had a problem with it. They wanted their story heard, so there was no privacy issue."

Also known as the Buckley Act, FERPA allows the U.S. Department of Education to punish colleges and high schools that fail to keep individual students' "educational records" confidential. FERPA applies to records containing students' identities, along with those "easily traceable" to individual students.

Cobler said she has been in contact with Mike Hiestand, a legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, since her first meeting with Garcia.

"FERPA prohibits school officials from disclosing student educational records unless they have obtained the permission of the student and parent, if the student is a minor," Hiestand said. "In this case, Tara and the students on the newspaper staff are not school officials, or acting as agents of the school. FERPA does not prohibit them from talking to their classmates and reporting what they find out. Moreover, given that Tara had lengthy interviews with both the student and his mom, I think it's a pretty easy call that they've consented to disclosing this information."

According to Cobler, Garcia said "First Amendment rights are not extended to high school newspapers," which prompted her to print the limits from Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier for Garcia, in order to explain that her story "does not fall under any of these categories," she said.

Hazelwood, a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, ruled that high school administrators can censor school-sponsored publications by showing they have a legitimate educational reason for doing so.

"Even under Hazelwood, the principal has to show that his censorship has a reasonable educational justification," Hiestand said. "And no attempt to do so has even been made in this case. While Hazelwood does give school officials greater authority over content than they once had, this principal -- like far too many -- has mistakenly taken that to mean that he has an unlimited license to censor."

Garcia said school officials have the ability to "control" the student newspaper.

"Our campus newspaper is not an open forum for indiscriminate use by the general public or campus students and staff," Garcia said. "Rather it is an educational course, over which school officials exercise reasonable editorial control to ensure that the pedagogical goals of the course are fulfilled."

Hiestand believes that "Tara and her staff are simply doing what reporters are supposed to do: find news and report it fairly and accurately."

Cobler feels that "this is the definition of censorship." She has submitted her story to the Houston Chronicle and is waiting to find out if it will get printed.

"I would be satisfied there because I got my story published," she said.

Cypress Ridge High School, FERPA, Hazelwood, Houston, news, rampage, Texas