Newspaper loses bid to access student disciplinary records

VERMONT— A St. Johnsbury newspaper cannot access disciplinary records ofstudents in the Vermont state college system, but it can learn the “finalresults” of some campus crimes, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled lastweek.In what appeared to end a three-year-long battle between theCaledonian-Record and the Vermont state college system, the court ruled thatVermont state law prohibits the release of students’ educational records, whichthe court said include disciplinary records. “Although the [Vermont]Public Records Act does not define ‘student record,’ the language of theexception is broad and unqualified,” wrote Associate Justice Marilyn Skoglundfor the court’s majority. The Caledonian-Record had requestedrecords, including minutes, from student disciplinary hearings at Lyndon StateCollege. The newspaper argued that it should have access to reports, whichinvolved allegations of criminal behavior by students so the public could gainawareness of college safety issues, such as illegal drug abuse, binge drinking,hazing, theft and other crimes. The court disagreed, saying that thedisclosure of the disciplinary records would violate students’ right to privacyunder the state open-records law and the Family Educational Rights and PrivacyAct, a federal law that regulates the disclosure of student records. Thecourt did rule, however, that the “final results” of student disciplineproceedings must be made public if the cases involved a student being foundresponsible for a violent crime or a nonforcible sex offense because thoserecords are excepted from the coverage of FERPA. The decision did havesome other silver linings for the newspaper. The court upheld theCaledonian-Record’s request to obtain campus crime statistics and policelogs under the Clery Act, a federal law mandating the release of universitycrime statistics but not the names of students involved. S. DanielCarter, senior vice president of Security on Campus, a Pennsylvania-basedorganization dedicated to college campus safety, was pleased with theconcessions the court made for public access. “Student andprofessional newspapers will now be better equipped to do their jobs … andmost importantly, students will be safer knowing if their peers are potentialthreats to their safety,” Carter said.He added, however, that the onlyway to ensure campus safety is to make all student records involving criminalmisbehavior available. The problem is, Carter said, universities are reluctantto release such campus crime records because doing so would publicize a securityrisk and injure schools’ reputations. The Vermont state college systemsaw the outcome as a clear victory for educational privacy. “What isparamount to us is [that] we can protect student privacy,” said Judy Beaupre,dean of institutional advancement at Lyndon State College. “As a formerjournalist, I advocate free speech, but we have a very strong security systemand do not think this will jeopardize student safety in the least.” Vermont State Colleges attorney Joseph P. McConnell was also pleased, sayingthat optimal conditions for student safety require a balance between disclosureand student privacy. “The Caledonian-Record just thought thebalance was way off somewhere else,” McConnell said.Despite TheCaledonian-Record’s failure to gain access to the records it wanted,Managing Editor Ellie Dixon said the newspaper made some progress for openrecords in Vermont. “We are moving forward slowly,” she said. “Beforethe trial, the police said they did not have permission to release their campuscrime log, but now they do. It’s a small victory.” Dixon said thenewspaper’s attorney Phillip White, who was unavailable for comment, has said hemay try to reopen sections of the case involving the disciplinary hearings andopen-meetings law. “We do this for the public,” Dixon said. “If thereis more worth fighting for, we will.”The court’s comments on FERPA couldhave an effect on journalists’ ability to access student records under thefederal law. The court noted in its decision that it is not clear whether FERPAactually prohibits the disclosure of student disciplinary records or simplyimposes financial penalties for schools who decide to open their studentdisciplinary records to the public.”We note, however, that state andfederal courts are sharply divided on this issue,” the courtwrote.

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