Paper sues Vt. colleges for disciplinary records

VERMONT — A St. Johnsbury newspaper has filed a lawsuit againstthe Vermont State Colleges system after one of the system’s colleges refusedto release student disciplinary information to the paper.

The Caldonian-Record filed a lawsuit last April against LyndonState College and the Vermont State Colleges in Washington County SuperiorCourt for violating the state’s open-meetings and open-records laws whenthe schools refused to release detailed disciplinary records regardingcrimes of violence or nonforcible sexual offenses that occurred on campusin the past five years. The newspaper is also seeking access to futuredisciplinary hearings and notice of when such hearings are held, as wellas the records of those proceedings.

The Record says the findings, sanctions and even the names ofthe students involved in disciplinary proceedings should be public recordand that the proceedings themselves should be public under the state’sopen-meetings law.

The schools argue that they are not required to hand over such informationor conduct disciplinary hearings in public because student disciplinaryinformation is not covered by the state freedom of information law andis protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federallaw that prohibits educational agencies from releasing student educationrecords.

“It is clear that the policy underlying FERPA is the ‘protection ofprivacy of parents and students,'” said the Vermont State Colleges in itsbrief. “Accordingly, any exception to FERPA must be read narrowly.”

Philip White, an attorney for The Record, said federal law shouldnever supercede state law when dealing with education, historically a statefunction.

“FERPA restricts the state’s sunshine laws,” White said. “And thereis no more important function of local government than to be open to itscitizenry.”

The lawsuit stems from The Record’s attempt to gain access tothe disciplinary records of several students at Lyndon State College whowere arrested for underage drinking in December 1999. The college ultimatelyprovided the information regarding the hearing’s findings and the punishmentshanded out but without the names of the students. The Record thenasked the school, and later the state college system, for more detailedinformation.

“I’m never confident challenging the status quo, but I think we havea real strong argument under the open-meetings law,” White said.

The court will now decide whether it wants to make a judgement fromthe bench or hear oral arguments.