Vt. Supreme Court to decide if state colleges can keep hearings closed

VERMONT — The Vermont Supreme Court heard oral argumentsMarch 13 in a case concerning 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 State Collegerefused to release detailed disciplinary records regarding crimes of violence ornon-forcible sexual offenses to the paper.The high court agreed to hearthe case at The Caledonian-Record ‘s request after a lower courthad determined that the college had not violated state laws.In itslawsuit, the newspaper requested that disciplinary records, listing the name ofthe student, the violation committed and the sanction imposed, be available tothe public under Vermont’s Public Records Act. The Caledonian-Record alsoasked that the disciplinary hearings be subject to Vermont’s Open Meeting Lawand be 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, the VermontSuperior 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. In testimony, Lyndon’s director of security, Charles Lacaillade, admittedthat he had not been trained on the Clery Act and that he had no knowledge ofwhat constituted a crime of violence under federal law.Furthermore, thecourt ruled that colleges must provide “open access to the final results of anydisciplinary proceedings” where a student is found guilty of a crime of violenceor non-forcible sexual offense.Finally, the court also determined thecolleges must open disciplinary hearings if a student, who is 18 or older,waives his confidentiality rights.A decision by the Vermont SupremeCourt is expected later this year.

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