When it comes to students’ records, what information is public and what is private? If you don’t know the answer, you’re not alone. I listened to an excellent lecture on the topic by Frank LoMonte, a first amendment lawyer with the Student Press Law Center. He’s one of the featured speakers at this year’s Education Writers conference in Nashville. He cited a great resource for reporters called “FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) and access to public records.”
Here are the five common myths about access to student records, according to the Student Press Law Center:
MYTH NO. 1
Any document kept by a school or college that contains a student’s name is a confidential education record.
REALITY: FERPA classifies records as confidential only if they “directly relate” to an identifiable student. Courts have ordered the release of records including parking tickets and complaints against school employees – even though the records mention students – because they are not the “education records” of particular students.
MYTH NO. 2
Crime reports that identify students are confidential.
REALITY: Congress amended FERPA in 1992 specifically to prevent schools from withholding crime reports from the public. This applies even if the crime reports are kept by a “campus safety” rather than “police” agency. There is no basis under FERPA for blacking out the names of students from police incident reports.
MYTH NO. 3
If a crime is handled through a student judicial conduct board and not the criminal justice system, then it’s confidential.
REALITY: While the files of a campus disciplinary body may be confidential FERPA records, an entire crime cannot be wiped off the public record by processing it through a disciplinary panel. Reports and statistics kept by police or by public safety officers still are public. And FERPA does not cover a disciplinary panel’s finding of wrong-doing for behavior that would be a violent crime or a sex crime if prosecuted criminally.
MYTH NO. 4
Schools that slip up and release records they shouldn’t have released will lose all of their federal funding.
REALITY: FERPA and the Department of Education’s FERPA rules say this extreme remedy – which has never been used in the 36-year history of FERPA – is proper only if the school cannot be brought into voluntary compliance with the law. The Department has issued some 150 letter notices alerting schools to potential FERPA violations, yet has never financially penalized any of them.
MYTH NO. 5
If any part of a document contains FERPA information, then the entire document is confidential.
REALITY: If it is possible to redact only the identifying information that makes an education record traceable to an individual student, then the personal information must be redacted and the remaining document disclosed.
You can read more about FERPA and what records are public vs. private on SPLC’s website. Frank is also a great resource and full of information on the topic. You can follow him on Twitter @FrankLoMonte.