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School district must release de-identified discipline records

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         KENTUCKY         Freedom of Information         Apr 12, 2001    

School district must release de-identified discipline records

  • The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that a compilation of school disciplinary records that does not identify individual students is not exempt from the state’s open records act.

A Kentucky school district must disclose student disciplinary records after removing information that might identify individuals, the state Supreme Court ruled March 22.

The Hardin County School District had argued that the disciplinary records, along with other information available to the public, could be used to identify individual students, and so disclosure would be prohibited under federal and state laws.

J. Kyle Foster, a reporter for The News-Enterprise in Elizabethtown, Ky., which is in Hardin County, requested records describing the conduct that resulted in expulsions and suspensions and the schools where the offenses occurred from 1990 to 1996.

The school system said the records were exempt from the Kentucky Open Records Act under the Family Educational Right to Privacy Act. FERPA, a federal law, prevents schools from making students’ educational records public without obtaining permission from either the student or their parents. Under the Act, educational records are “those records, files, documents and other materials which contain information directly related to a student and are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a person acting for such agency or institution.”

Justice Donald Wintersheimer, who authored the 5-2 decision, said that a statistical compilation, such as the one sought by Foster, containing “the identity of the school, year of occurrence, reason for the disciplinary action and the type of action does not directly relate to any particular student,” thus not making the document an educational record within the meaning of FERPA.

The court also cited the strong public interest in records involving school discipline.

“Clearly, in today’s changing society, a vital piece of information for the parents and students is the school policy regarding disciplinary measures,” the opinion said.

The two dissenting justices said they were not satisfied that the statistical compilation would not clearly identify individual students.

“I see no basis for this court, or any court, to express a definitive opinion as to whether this information will actually make student identities easily traceable when that information exists . . . only as hypotheticals and probabilities,” Justice William Cooper said in his dissenting opinion.

Both Cooper and Justice James Keller recommended the case be sent back for more fact-finding to determine whether the documents would indeed hide the identities of individual students.

(Hardin County Schools v. Foster; Media Counsel: Kimberly K. Green, Troy D. Reynolds, Dinsmore & Shohl, Louisville) EH


© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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