Oct 162010
 
 October 16, 2010  Court, Laws, Youth & Schools

The Freedom of Information Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) recently urged Congress to revise the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).  Their proposal, if adopted, would likely water down privacy protections for both students and parents.

The resolution states:

Whereas, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, called “FERPA,” was intended to protect students from embarrassment by having financial aid information or academic records released to the public, and

Whereas, educational institutions from schools to universities have expanded the purview of FERPA beyond reason to make other types of records secret, including athletic budgets, parking tickets and school lunch menus, and

Whereas, the U.S. Department of Education interprets the law beyond its intent, thus allowing school officials to hide entire records, even with names redacted, if they suspect a journalist might identify someone named in the records, and

Whereas, a Columbus Dispatch 2009 investigation exposed the widespread confusion in applying FERPA and use of FERPA to hide records involving school finance, travel and malfeasance, and

Whereas, former Sen. James L. Buckley, who crafted FERPA, stated in the Columbus Dispatch series that “That’s not what we intended. The law needs to be revamped. Institutions are putting their own meaning into the law,” and

Whereas, campus record audits from throughout the country, including a 2008 audit in Georgia, demonstrated that educational institutions illegally keep records secret, often claiming FERPA as justification, and

Whereas, the public needs access to school records that shed light on government operations, such as budgets, school safety and performance,

Therefore, be it resolved that the Society of Professional Journalists in convention assembled in Las Vegas, Nev., for its 101st celebration of journalism urges Congress to clarify FERPA to exempt from disclosure only information that would explicitly link financial aid information, poor grades, non-criminal disciplinary records or other deficient academic performance with specific identifiable students, and

Be it further resolved that SPJ urges Congress to shift responsibility of the records portion of FERPA interpretation and implementation from the Department of Education to an agency more knowledgeable about records policies, such as the National Archives and Records Administration.

FERPA was intended to protect the privacy of educational records and to provide for parental access to student records for students under age 18. Although I understand why journalists want more access to information and I agree that many institutions either misunderstand FERPA or use it as a shield, trashing FERPA is not the answer. The answer is to clarify proper FERPA application, which can be done without requiring any new legislation.

It is a horrible idea, in my opinion, to exempt criminal disciplinary records from FERPA protection at the k-12 level. Too many disabled or minority students are charged with crimes incorrectly or unfairly. To make their names and records available to media would compound the harm. Whether the same protection should apply at the secondary level for students over the age of 18 may be another matter, however.

Here’s a case in point.  Jeff Eckhoff reports:

The release of hundreds of confidential University of Iowa documents related to an alleged sexual assault in 2007 will come down to a question of interpreting a federal law that the university has used to withhold them, Iowa Supreme Court justices said Friday.

“Federal law is going to prevail,” Justice Brent Appel said during oral arguments in the university’s appeal of a lawsuit filed by the Iowa City Press-Citizen. “The question is, ‘What is federal law?’ ”

The Press-Citizen sued the university in 2008 after campus officials provided only 18 documents in response to the first of five requests under Iowa’s open records law. The requests sought a wide variety of paperwork related to an October 2007 incident in a Hillcrest Residence Hall dorm room where former Hawkeye football players Abe Satterfield and Cedric Everson allegedly sexually assaulted a former U of I student athlete.

[…]

The newspaper’s lawsuit initially led Johnson County District Judge Douglas Russell to order the university to release roughly 1,100 pages in September 2009. Russell ruled that roughly 445 documents were not confidential and another 685 could be released after redacting identifying information.

Campus officials appealed, citing part of the U.S. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that “prohibits release of records in a redacted form when the requestor knows the identity of the students.”

Read more in the Des Moines Register.

Were campus officials using FERPA as an excuse, or is it more likely that they were adhering to FERPA as they interpret it? And what did the FERPA Compliance Office tell them if they asked for advice on the application of the law?

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