Supreme Court hears FERPA case

WASHINGTON, D.C. ‘ The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this fall in Falvo v. Owasso Independent School District, a case involving the federal statute that regulates the release of student education records.

Kristja J. Falvo sued her son’s Oklahoma school in 1998, claiming the disclosure of his quiz grade during class violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as the Buckley Amendment. Falvo said the grading practice, in which students grade other students’ work and read the marks aloud, violated the federal law.

A federal appeals court sided with Falvo in October 2000.

While the justices probed many aspects of the law during oral arguments, most of their questions centered on the definition of an ‘education record’ covered by the law ‘ a term that has been interpreted differently by the courts. Justices struggled to define how broadly or narrowly Congress intended the statute.

At one point, justices asked if the courts had legal authority to rule on Falvo’s claim. Since the only explicit penalty in the law is a withdrawal of federal funding for a school in violation, the justices questioned whether individual students or parents had the right to sue in court to enforce the law.

By finding that individuals cannot legally challenge the law, the court could avoid the underlying question of what constitutes an ‘education record.’

The outcome of the case could clarify the definition of such records ‘ often a contentious matter for student newspapers ‘ or stipulate whether individuals could bring private lawsuits under FERPA.

This is the first FERPA case to be heard by the Court since the law’s adoption.