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TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Campus discipline that's something to write home about

(02/08/11 4:38pm)

College disciplinary records are where the rubber meets the road for student privacy law. They are the confidential records that journalists most want -- and that colleges most want to withhold. While journalists have very little need for grades, attendance sheets and other academic records, they often are legitimately interested in how campus judicial bodies do (or don't) mete out punishment for disciplinary infractions.



Univ. of Illinois announces appeal in federal case involving public records, FERPA

(04/13/11 4:55pm)

The University of Illinois announced Tuesday it is appealing a judge’s ruling that federal student privacy law does not prevent the release of records under the state open records act. In court filings, the university also asks Judge Joan Gottschall to stay her ruling while the appeal moves forward in the 7th U.S.


Maryland journalists' fight for campus sexual assault records yields more (and less) than expected

(04/28/11 7:49pm)

Twenty years ago, Congress decided that colleges could no longer hide behind federal privacy law to withhold information when they determined that a sex offense had been committed on campus. Knowing that serious crimes often are processed through secretive disciplinary channels outside of public view, Congress amended the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to say that the outcome of a disciplinary hearing is not confidential if the student is found culpable for conduct amounting to a crime of violence or a sex crime. Colleges have been slow to get this message, however, and Exhibit A is the University of Maryland -- which for the better part of the last three years fought student journalists' attempts to report on the way rape allegations are investigated and punished. It took a ruling from the state attorney general -- and even then, compliance took many months and a battle over jacked-up fees -- before the university agreed to comply with the Maryland Public Information Act and release the documents sought by student reporters from Capital News Service. Now it's apparent why Maryland was so resistant to disclosure: Because the answer to the question "who has been punished for committing a sexual assault on campus" is "almost no one." If the university's public-records production is complete, then only four students -- one of them a former Maryland Terrapins quarterback who transferred away in 2006 -- were punished by the school's Office of Student Conduct for sex offenses over the last 10 years, according to CNS. That is a remarkably low number for a school that enrolls more than 37,000 students annually. Maryland's Clery Act report, a federally mandated snapshot of campus crimes, shows 105 forcible sexual assaults reported from 2006 through 2008 alone.


UNC will appeal FERPA ruling ordering disclosure of athletic department records

(05/12/11 7:27pm)

The chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said Thursday the school will appeal a judge’s decision and seek a stay in a public-records lawsuit filed by media outlets including the Daily Tar Heel student newspaper. The trial judge's April 19decision declared that phone records of university athletic department officials and parking tickets given to student athletes are not protected from disclosure by federal privacy law. In a press release, Chancellor Holden Thorp said the school is appealing because of student privacy rights, not because of a desire to conceal information about UNC's football program. “Our responsibility is to protect the privacy rights of all of our students, whether they’re on the football team, in the marching band or in a Chemistry 101 class.


Arizona judge narrows scope of FERPA "education records" in Tucson shooter Loughner's case

(05/20/11 6:46pm)

An Arizona judge's decision letting the media obtain internal college correspondence about Tucson shooter Jared Loughner's record of erratic behavior adopts a sensibly limited view of the type of documents that can be concealed as "education records." Arizona Superior Court Judge Stephen C.


SPLC voices concern over Department of Education's proposed changes to FERPA 'directory information' disclosure

(05/23/11 4:48pm)

For the second time in three years, the U.S. Department of Education is revising its rules governing the confidentiality of student information under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The revision getting the most attention -- both positive and negative -- would broaden the universe of government employees and contractors who can obtain student data for accountability purposes, including performance audits and "longitudinal data" studies (tracking the performance of a set of students as they progress through school). Less publicized is the Department's proposal to revamp the concept of "directory information." Directory information operates as an exception to FERPA confidentiality.


Keeping secrets from the secret-keepers -- FERPA officially "jumps the shark"

(06/05/11 1:39pm)

Oh, it's so hard not to enjoy this. So let's not even try. For years, school boards and their lawyers have been telling journalists and parents that just about any piece of substantive information they might need is top-secret under federal privacy law and exempt from state public-records statutes. Trends in discipline, statistics about school violence -- you name it, some enterprising school attorney can figure out how to squeeze it into the "black box" that is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Even if there is no legitimate privacy interest at stake, and a compelling public interest in disclosure. Given the spiral of FERPA abuse,  it was inevitable that schools would become so secretive that they'd start concealing information even from themselves. Welcome to Cherokee County, Georgia, which is facing the prospect that a fledgling charter school could face legal action under the Georgia Open Records Act for withholding a roster of its currently enrolled students... From its own school board. You read that right.


TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Star athletes are big wheels on campus, but whose wheels are they driving?

(06/21/11 5:59pm)

NCAA Division I football players are among the world's most finely conditioned athletes, capable of bench-pressing a quarter of a ton, dashing 40 yards in less than 4.5 seconds, and leaping nearly four feet in the air from a standing start. Signaling for left turns?





When it comes to public records, schools can't hide behind the insurance company

(09/22/11 4:27pm)

Despite all its good intentions, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act has often been misused by schools to deny any number of valid open records requests, leaving a string of court cases to interpret the law. A recent decision out of Arizona ended with a judge ruling a school district couldn’t claim a FERPA exemption on a settlement agreement with a former student who was strip-searched by school officials. The history on that case goes back many years and is well worth delving into, notably the Supreme Court ruling 8-1 that the girl’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated.


Dept. of Education tweaks FERPA rules, fails to address media concerns over "directory" access

(12/01/11 8:22pm)

New federal rules released Thursday purport to give schools and colleges greater discretion to limit access to student directories to select users for select purposes. However, it isn't clear how much practical effect -- if any -- the rules will have in public schools and colleges, where student directories generally are already obtainable through state open-records laws. The U.S.


TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: A reminder that FERPA privacy of disciplinary records isn't all-or-nothing

(12/13/11 4:03pm)

A New Jersey court ruling released this week reinforces the now-well-established point that the public is entitled to disclosure of records from schools -- even sensitive ones that schools would prefer to classify as confidential -- with minimal edits to remove student names where necessary. In K.L.


Epilogue to Phoebe Prince bullying case: Litigation settlements with school districts are public record

(12/28/11 5:40pm)

A Massachusetts judge's ruling involving the suicide of a teen bullying victim is the latest reaffirmation that school districts cannot lawfully enter into confidential agreements to conceal settlement payments from the public. In a Dec.


Montana court is another voice in the growing chorus: FERPA doesn't mean what schools say it does

(03/04/12 8:23pm)

A well-known college employee suddenly disappears from campus under a cloud of misconduct rumors. When the news media starts asking questions, the college throws up a steel curtain of secrecy, claiming "student confidentiality." Journalists have become familiar with this bureaucratic dodge, and have come to regard cries of "FERPA" -- the federal student privacy law -- as skeptically as those of, "Wolf!" Now, yet another state court -- this time in Montana -- has agreed with the news media that Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) does not override a state university's duty to produce open records, if the records are primarily about the conduct of an employee and not primarily about students. In a March 1 ruling, Bozeman Daily Chronicle v.