At the beginning of the month, I had noted a situation involving the South Whidbey School District. The district had implemented a policy of naming, online, those who had requested public records. Parents were understandably upset that the district was including education records parents might request about their children under FERPA.
In this case, I thought the parents had a better grasp of FERPA than the district had. Happily, the parents’ advocacy appears to have paid off – at least in part. Justin Burnett reports that the district has dropped the practice:
At a workshop Wednesday evening, directors informally agreed with Superintendent Jo Moccia’s recommendation to drop the practice in the wake of public criticism, extensive news coverage and because naming requesters doesn’t help the board understand the financial impacts of complying with the state’s Open Public Records Act — the board’s stated goal of the policy.
If you want to get a sense of how privacy-violative the policy was, consider this:
In December, the district began including a document in online meeting agendas that named the people who sought public documents, the details of what they asked for and an estimation of the time and financial resources it took to satisfy the request. The policy sparked widespread criticism from open government advocates and district parents alike.
The policy, it seems, was in response to a situation involving one frequent requestor, where the board’s intention was to keep abreast of resources and costs involved in responding to public records requests.
But some information about parental requests for their children’s records could still be disclosed, it seems. Superintent Jo Moccia
proposed replacing the names of requesters with a non-identifier, such as a number or letter. It accomplishes the original goal but also addresses public objections, she said.
None of the directors opposed the change, but Chairwoman Linda Racicot and co-Chairman Steve Scoles asked if identities would still be disclosable upon request. Both Moccia and the district’s attorney, Laura Clinton of Seattle-based K&L Gates, confirmed that such information was indeed available for public release. As soon as a records request is submitted it becomes a public document itself, they said.
So parents might find that their requests for records could be disclosed to others who make a public records request for the identities of requestors. That is troubling as it may intimidate parents who wish to avail themselves of FERPA’s protections to inspect their children’s records.
Having been painted a troublemaker by my own children’s district years ago, I can imagine what might have happened had the district released information about all the requests I made under FERPA and Freedom of Information to obtain records that proved the district had failed to meet its obligations to my child.
Districts have a nasty way of smearing some parents, like, “Well, we’d love to an afters-chool arts program, but this parent’s costing us a lot of money that we could otherwise use.” That’s not a direct quote from my case, but it’ll give you a sense of the smear campaign that went on as board members tried to calm members of the public who wanted an explanation of why the district had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the provision of services my child both needed and was entitled to.
I don’t know what will happen in South Whidbey going forward, but I do think this is a bad policy (naming requestors of children’s education records) and that it is not consonant with the intentions of FERPA.
Read more on South Whidbey Record.