University officials at Arkansas State University must disclose student disciplinary records under the state’s freedom of information act, according to an opinion issued by the state’s attorney general on Feb. 20.
The opinion is the first time the state has considered whether university disciplinary records constitute “scholastic records,” which are exempt from disclosure under the freedom of information act.
The university requested the attorney general’s opinion after the student newspaper, the Herald, asked for the disciplinary records of two students Feb. 5.
Megan Lewis, news editor of the Herald, said university officials asked her what she would do if they denied her request.
“I told them I would go to the attorney general,” Lewis said. “Then the university decided to contact him first to see whether or not they were protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.”
In 1998, Congress amended FERPA to allow, but not require, schools to release the outcome of a disciplinary proceeding in which the student involved has been found responsible for a violent crime or nonforcible sex offenses, as well as the name of the student and the disciplinary action taken by the university.
The attorney general determined that the university was obligated to release the disciplinary records under the state open-records law.
Lewis said the university notified the Herald about the attorney general’s opinion two days after university officials advised the two students whose records the Herald had tried to obtain that they would be able to contact an attorney.
Lewis said the Herald requested the records to find out whether or not the university was enforcing its own policies regarding violations of the student code of conduct.
“We never had any intention of publishing random background information on the students who were punished at these hearings,” Lewis said. “We just wanted to find out what each person did and then look at the university’s response to see if they were being consistent. We are trying to do the right thing and be a watchdog for the student body.”
Not everyone understood the Herald’s intentions.
Lewis said one of the students whose disciplinary records the Herald had attempted to obtain was arrested Feb. 23 for disorderly conduct when he became involved in a heated discussion with the Herald’s adviser.
According to Bonnie Thrasher, the Herald adviser, Duane Alvin came to the Herald office to drop off a copy of his judicial records and ended up in a heated argument over the paper’s decision to review his file.
Now that Congress has amended the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and thereby done away with much of the federal excuse, some schools have looked to their state laws to provide them with a shield from disclosure. Some state laws, for example, include an exemption for “education records,” “academic records,” or, as in Arkansas