Education Department issues guidelines for release of campus court information

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Under new guidelines issued by the Departmentof Education in July, colleges and universities can no longer use the FamilyEducational Rights and Privacy Act as justification for their refusal torelease the results of certain campus disciplinary proceedings.

The new guidelines make it clear that schools do not violate FERPA –a law enacted to protect the privacy of students’ educational records –if they release the names of students found guilty of violent crimes andnonforcible sex offenses in the campus court system, unless prevented fromdoing so by a state law or other legal mandate.

Since the rules took effect August 7, schools are now allowed to providethe final results of disciplinary proceedings in which a student is foundto be in violation of school rules for allegedly committing a crime ofviolence or nonforcible sex offense. Although the student may have theoption to appeal the finding, the guidelines state that schools do nothave to wait for the appeals process to be completed before releasing theinformation.

“I’m very, very pleased that the Department of Education has decidedthat final results are when the decision is made and given to the perpetrators,prior to any appeals or reviews,” said Carolyn S. Carlson, founder of theSociety of Professional Journalists’ Campus Courts Task Force. “That meansthat the campus media will be getting far more timely information thanwe had ever hoped for.”

The new rules implement changes made to the 1998 Higher Education Actand seek to clarify how schools should interpret the law. By limiting thetype of information that falls under FERPA protection, the regulationsshould prevent colleges from using the law to deny access to student disciplinaryrecords, said Daniel Carter, vice president of the campus watchdog groupSecurity on Campus.

“Colleges will no longer be able to exploit federal privacy laws toprotect campus criminals,” Carter said. “Doing so only protected the school’simage while putting other students needlessly at risk.”

The guidelines also give schools a clearer definition of the kinds ofoffenses for which campus court results can be provided. A complete listingof and descriptions for what crimes are considered crimes of violence isincluded among the regulations.

The guidelines also determine what information schools can release.This includes the student’s name, details about the violation committed-includingthe institutional rules or code sections that were violated-along withany essential findings supporting the institution’s conclusion that a crimewas committed and a description of the disciplinary action taken by theinstitution, including its date of imposition and duration.

Carlson said these details should be specific enough to enable studentsto connect the punishment imposed to the crime committed.

“I think the student media, particularly, will now be able to get enoughinformation out of the judicial offices to be able to follow up on importantcrimes that have occurred on campus,” she said.

However, the guidelines do prevent the disclosure of victim and witnessinformation. The regulations allow for disclosure of records for any proceedingdating back to October 7, 1998.

The new guidelines do not require colleges to release any of the information.But many public universities will be forced to disclose the documents understate open-records laws, and Carter said the new FERPA guidelines shouldgive student journalists more access to those records.

“Student journalists need to be educated about these changes, as wellas what their state law says so they will know what campus court recordsthey have a right to, and if not a right to, what a school may legallyrelease if they can make a compelling case,” Carter said.

Carlson also offered advice on ways for student media to take advantageof the FERPA guidelines. First, she said, students should check with theircampus judicial affairs offices and examine state open-records laws tosee if they require schools to release the records.

If the state law is unclear, Carlson said students should ask theirstate attorney general’s office to determine whether the law requires it.If the attorney general is unsure, Carlson suggested having a judge orthe legislature address the law itself and make a determination.

She said student journalists should also press their schools for therelease of information and details of crimes heard by campus judicial systems.

“The whole point of covering campus crimes is to let the campus communityknow what’s going on in their midst so they can better protect themselves,”Carlson said.

The complete guidelines are available onthe Department of Education’s Web site at: