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Appeals court rules expulsion records protected under FERPA

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Appeals court rules expulsion records protected under FERPA

  • Federal law protecting student educational records from being released without consent preempts state regulation requiring open records.

Jan. 14, 2003 — A California Court of Appeals in Riverside ruled Dec. 31 that student expulsion records are considered educational records and as such can be withheld by schools under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The court ruled that a state law requiring school boards to maintain public records of all expulsions violated FERPA regulations.

FERPA provides for privacy concerning student educational records maintained by an educational agency or institution.

Violating this act, also known as the Buckley Amendment, by releasing a student’s educational records without consent from the student or student’s parents can lead to a loss of federal funding.

The case stemmed from a request by Larry Komar of Lake Arrowhead, Calif. for suspension and expulsion records from the Rim of the World Unified School District. The district declined, citing the Buckley Amendment. Komar narrowed his request to just expulsions. After that request also was denied he took his claim to a California superior court, which granted his request.

The appeals court reversed the lower court’s decision.

According to Komar, a child advocate, 73 percent of all school expulsions in the district are later overturned by the school board, a number out of proportion with the rest of the state.

“I am saddened because of the impact this is going to have on all children at all schools,” Komar said.

Whether nonacademic records such as disciplinary records are covered by FERPA is debatable. A federal appeals court (6th Cir.) in Ohio ruled last year in U.S. v. Miami University that disciplinary records qualify as educational records. In previous years statistical records with all personal information blacked out also have been considered protected.

These rulings indicate such non-academic records are protected as educational under FERPA because they are still school-held documents that relate to a student.

Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, was not surprised the court found a conflict between the regulations and feels that conflict might be resolved only by new legislation.

He cited the differences between an expulsion in a large school district such as Los Angeles Unified and one in a rural district with only one 11th grade class. In one instance knowing the age, grade and offense that led to expulsion is not enough to personally identify the offender due to the sheer number of students. But while in the rural case that information might be enough to identify a student, Francke noted that most people in the area would likely know about an expulsion anyway.

“The idea behind having this kind of statute is to keep some sort of public eye on how this ultimate educational check is being used. Is it being employed for minor offenses? Is it being used to discriminate? Having that much information on public record serves a public interest without having to know individual [case] specifics,” Francke said.

The California Public Records Act does not allow disclosure of records that are exempt by state or federal law. According to the court’s decision, FERPA regulations protecting educational records take precedent, and the expulsion records do not have to be released to the public.

(Rim of the World Unified School District v. Komar) KD

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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