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Central Dauphin School District v. Hawkins

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  1. Local Legal Initiative

Court: Pennsylvania Supreme Court

Date Filed: Feb. 9, 2022

Background: In February 2016, Valerie Hawkins, a journalist at Fox43 in York, Pennsylvania, filed a public records request with the Central Dauphin School District seeking access to school bus surveillance camera footage capturing an altercation between a high school student and a school principal’s wife, for which the wife was charged with harassment. The school district, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, said the video in question was exempt under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law and declined to turn it over. The district also claimed it lacked the technology to blur the students’ faces.

Hawkins and the news station appealed to the state’s Office of Open Records, which concluded that the video should be released in redacted form. The Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County and the Commonwealth Court later affirmed the OOR’s decision requiring disclosure.

The school district then appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Our Position: The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania should affirm the Commonwealth Court’s decision requiring the release of the recording in question.

  • FERPA does not apply to the recording at issue and the Right to Know Law requires disclosure.
  • The school district cannot sidestep its obligations under the Right to Know Law solely because the requested record is in video format.
  • Public access to de-identified records, including school bus surveillance camera videos, is necessary for government accountability.

Quote: “Members of the media, and the communities they serve, must be able to access this kind of information to learn more about troubling incidents involving school buses so that problems and trends can be discovered and understood, and policy changes made if needed.”

Related: In August 2021, the Reporters Committee, Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association and seven news organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief in School District of Philadelphia v. Calefati, another case in which a school district withheld records by claiming that they were exempt from disclosure under FERPA. The brief, filed in support of the Philadelphia Inquirer and reporter Jessica Calefati, argued that the de-identified school attendance records at issue were not exempt under FERPA and that their disclosure is crucial for government accountability. In January, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania affirmed a lower court decision holding that the records should be released.