State court sides with FERPA, closes expulsion files

CALIFORNIA — The state’s public high schools may no longer be able to release the names of students who are expelled. In declining to hear a case over the matter in April, the California Supreme Court allowed to stand an appellate court decision that expulsion records can be sealed under a federal privacy law.

In its January 2003 decision, the Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, said the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act supersedes the California Education Code.

The code permits the disclosure of students’ expulsion records. In a 1997 legal opinion in support of the education code, the state attorney general said that student names and reasons for expulsions can be contained in those records.

The appellate court ruled, however, that the code is “a direct obstacle to accomplishing Congress’ stated purpose to protect parent and student privacy by limiting access to education records, including expulsion records.” Under FERPA, a school can lose its federal funding if it has a policy or practice of permitting the release of students’ education records without receiving consent.

The California Education Code prohibits the release of most student records barring a court order or written parental consent, but it made an exception for records pertaining to expulsions. 

The court’s decision stems from a lawsuit filed against the Rim of the World Unified School District by a resident whose request for expulsion records in 2001 was denied. According to an article in the San Bernardino County Sun, Larry Komar said he requested the records because he was concerned about the high number of students who were expelled from district schools.

Students’ names were redacted from those records, but school district officials still refused the request, claiming that their release would constitute an invasion of privacy in violation of FERPA.

In overturning a trial court decision, the appellate court ruled that even if the student’s name were redacted from the expulsion record before it was made public, it would still contain “information directly related to a student.”

The appellate court said the ruling resolves a “genuine, undeniable conflict between state and federal law.”

Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, said that he was disappointed that the appeals court had not made any attempt to reconcile the state and federal laws.

“If it is the case that districts would be absolved of [releasing the records] because of a penalty that would be imposed by the federal government, and that’s an issue which I think is less than obvious, then at least information that would not identify the pupils should still be made available under the state law,” Francke said.

According to Jim Manning, one of Komar’s lawyers, the state legislature may or may not repeal the section of the code in question.

“We were very disappointed in the outcome of the case,” Manning said. “We are concerned that it will be more difficult to monitor the performance of California school districts when it comes to student discipline.”

CASE: Rim of the World Unified School Dist. v. Superior Ct., 104 Cal. App. 4th 1393 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. 2002), review denied, 2003 Cal. LEXIS 2696 (Cal. April 23, 2003).