Georgia school’s refusal to release video needed for student death investigation named “FERPA Fib of the Year”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
A South Georgia school district’s insistence that it couldn’t release surveillance video that might shed light on the suspicious
death of a 17-year-old student in the school’s gym was named the first “FERPA
Fib of the Year” today by the Student Press Law Center.
The SPLC’s award-winning blog, FERPA Fact, highlights the rampant misuse of the Family
Educational Rights and Privacy Act – the federal student privacy statute – to
obstruct school accountability when no legitimate student privacy concerns are
involved. Schools and colleges are widely known for citing FERPA as a
justification for refusing to release public documents, regardless of whether
the records fit the statute’s definition of “education records.”
“It’s hard to pick just one FERPA abuser to single out for recognition, since so many schools and colleges misuse the law to obstruct access to public records,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.
“What the Lowndes County School District did to the family of Kendrick Johnson perfectly exemplifies the ‘literalism run wild’ mentality that has displaced common sense and good judgment at so many schools,” LoMonte said. “This is a case in which the release of the video is essential to reassure the community that a murderer isn’t running loose inside of the school. To make the grieving Johnson family get a lawyer and go to court to obtain a video that is unmistakably a public record is a particularly cruel and cold-blooded abuse of FERPA. Schools have been over-classifying public records as ‘confidential education records’ for years, but Lowndes County may have hit a new low.”
Other “finalists” for “FERPA Fib of the Year” included University of Delaware General Counsel Lawrence White, the University of Mississippi, the University of Iowa, and the Bret Harte Union School District in California. Information about all of these “FERPA Fibbers” is available on the FERPA Fact blog at: http://ferpafact.tumblr.com/post/72096251203/ferpa-fib-of-the-year-2013-edition.
Enacted by Congress in 1974, FERPA allows the U.S. Department of Education (“DOE”) to revoke federal education funding for any school that fails to maintain a policy of keeping students’ “education records” confidential. The DOE has never penalized any school or college in the 40-year history of FERPA. The U.S. Supreme Court has said “education records” means only records directly pertaining to a student and stored in a central database, such as a student’s file with the principal or college registrar. In spite of the Supreme Court’s guidance, schools and colleges have claimed FERPA privacy when asked for just about any piece of information, including emails between football coaches and boosters, parking tickets issued to student athletes, and statistics about how many students have been caught with guns in schools. The primary author of the law, former U.S. Sen. James Buckley of New York, has decried the over-use of FERPA to obstruct public access to records that are not “educational.”
“FERPA is a broken statute that has become a catch-all excuse for colleges and schools that want to withhold embarrassing information they believe might damage their images,” LoMonte said. “Runaway FERPA secrecy isn’t just impeding journalism, it’s interfering with the ability of students and parents to make sure their schools are safe.”
LoMonte said the Department of Education should convene a school transparency task force to recommend an overhaul of federal regulations confining the scope of FERPA to its intended boundaries, and if the DOE refuses to do so, Congress should hold hearings on the abuse of FERPA and rewrite the statute. In addition to narrowing the definition of what qualifies as a confidential “education record,” Congress should make clear that the penalty for a violation is not the loss of every dollar of federal education money, and that no one will be penalized for a good-faith decision to grant a request for documents covered by state public-records law, LoMonte said.
The FERPA Fact blog at http://ferpafact.tumblr.com was started in 2012 to fact-check claims of FERPA privacy and publicize instances in which the statute is used incorrectly to obstruct transparency. The Education Writers Association named FERPA Fact one of the nation’s best nonprofit education blogs in 2013.
Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Center provides free information and educational materials for student journalists and their teachers on a wide variety of legal topics on its website at www.splc.org.