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
On Monday morning, your friend told you that Sparky,
an iguana and the school mascot, had mysteriously disappeared.
Tuesday, you became suspicious when you noticed a line of mousetraps tucked
under the food service line in the cafeteria.
Wednesday morning you
waited more than an hour in the pouring rain for the school bus. Belching black
smoke, the bus came clanging and squeaking, waking up the neighborhood. What
followed was a gut-jarring bus ride you will not soon forget. You decide to walk
Wednesday afternoon, on the way to trigonometry, you got stuck in
the elevator — again. It took them 15 minutes to get you out and your
unsympathetic math teacher gave you extra math problems for being
Thursday, after history class, you discovered that somebody had
broken into your locker. They took your lucky Tiger Woods trading card and your
Slinky. After talking to some friends, you learned that you were the fifth
victim of locker theft that week. Does Richard M. Nixon High School really have
a crime problem? You wonder.
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
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: (1)
cafeteria and food inspection records; (2) bus inspection records; (3) building
inspection records; (4) the school budget; (5) school accreditation reports; (6)
school academic performance reports; and (7) school crime and violence
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
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
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:
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"
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.
1. Cafeteria and food inspection records 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
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
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.
inspection records for school buses 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.
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.
inspection records 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
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
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.
4. School budget
reports 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."
5. School accreditation records 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.
6. Academic performance reports 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.
7. Reports on crime statistics on school
grounds 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
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
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
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.
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
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.
For additional information about access laws and other
issues raised by this article, contact the Student Press Law Center, 1101 Wilson
Blvd., Suite 1100, Arlington, Va. 22209. (703) 807-1904.