Vermont Supreme Court to decide if state colleges can keep hearings closed

The Vermont Supreme Court heard oral arguments March 13 in a caseconcerning public access to student disciplinary records andhearings.

St. Johnsbury’s city newspaper, The Caledonian-Record,sued Vermont State Colleges and Lyndon State College for violating the state’sopen-meetings and open-records laws when the schools denied access to studentdisciplinary records and hearings dealing with violations of the student code ofbehavior and state or federal criminal laws.

In 2000, Lyndon StateCollege refused to release detailed disciplinary records regarding crimes ofviolence or non-forcible sexual offenses to the paper.

In its lawsuit,the newspaper requested that disciplinary records, which include the name of thestudent, the violation committed and the sanction imposed, be available to thepublic under Vermont’s Public Records Act. The Caledonian-Record alsoasked that campus disciplinary hearings be subject to Vermont’s Open MeetingsLaw and open to the public.

The colleges argued that the records wereexempted from disclosure under the federal Family Educational Rights and PrivacyAct. Under FERPA, a school can lose its federal funding if it has a “policy orpractice of permitting the release of [students’] education records … withoutthe written consent” of the students involved.

Last July, a statesuperior court ruled largely in favor of the colleges. Disciplinary hearings andrecords were ruled exempt from freedom of information laws because the courtconsidered them to be education records. The hearings were also ruled exemptbecause, the court determined, more than one official had to be present for themeeting to be considered public. Only one college official attends disciplinaryhearings at Vermont State Colleges.

However, the court ordered thecolleges to provide information required by the Clery Act, the federal law thatrequires schools to release annual campus crime statistics and daily incidentlogs. Furthermore, the court ruled that the colleges must provide “open accessto the final results of any disciplinary proceedings” where a student is foundguilty of a crime of violence or non-forcible sexual offense.

Intestimony, Lyndon’s director of security, Charles Lacaillade, admitted that hehad not been trained on the Clery Act and that he had no knowledge of whatconstituted a crime of violence under federal law.

Finally, the courtalso determined that the colleges must open disciplinary hearings if a studentwho is 18 or older waives his confidentiality rights.

A decision by theVermont Supreme Court is expected later this year.

SPLC View: As the casepoints out, the fight for access to campus court hearings and records continues,sometimes – as here – being pursued by commercial news organizations that are asbewildered as student media by the ability of schools to hold secret tribunalsthat often involve serious crimes. This will be the third time a state’s highestcourt has addressed the issue. Thus far, the supreme courts of both Georgia andOhio have required their public colleges and universities to provide greateraccess to their campus court system.