Proposed FERPA amendment requires disclosure of some disciplinary records

WASHINGTON, D.C. –– A bill was introduced lastweek in the U.S. House of Representatives that would amend the FamilyEducational Rights and Privacy Act to require universities to releaseinformation about student disciplinary hearings to victims of violent crimes andnonforcible sex offenses.FERPA is a federal law, enacted in 1974, thatimposes financial penalties on schools that release studenteducational records without consent. Because of growing campus safetyconcerns, FERPA was amended in 1998, allowing — but not requiring —schools to disclose the final results of disciplinary hearings on campus. Todate, public universities only have to release these results when stateopen-records laws require them to. The bill, named the David SchickHonesty and Campus Justice Act for a Georgetown University student who waskilled in a campus brawl, would require universities to disclose the names ofviolent criminals and nonforcible sex offenders to their victims, but not themedia or the public. Campus security advocates say that because ofFERPA’s strict requirements for privacy, universities frequently let students gounpunished for serious crimes to protect universities’reputations.Georgetown University required the student who hit Schick inthe February 2000 brawl, which caused Schick to fall, hit his head andeventually die, to write a 10-page reflective paper. Schick’s family saidpublic disclosure of similar crimes would help prevent suchtragedies.Kate Deringer, a Georgetown University student who was thevictim of a rape on campus, joined the Schicks in fighting what she callsGeorgetown’s incorrect interpretation of FERPA.”Georgetown’sadjudication process fails because it places all of its interest in protecting acrystal-clean image of the university instead of protecting the well being andsafety of its students,” Deringer said in a statement.If it passes, thebill proposed Sept. 16 by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., could givejournalists greater access to campus crime information, albeit second-hand,through victims.Freedom of information and campus security advocates aresupporting the new bill, but many say it does not go far enough. “Theissues at hand here are the public’s right to know about campus crime and equalpunishment of student criminals,” said S. Daniel Carter, senior vice presidentof Security on Campus Inc, a nonprofit organization advocating campus safety.”It’s a start, but universities are not going to be fully safe until schools arerequired to disclose all campus crime records to the public –– notjust to the victims.”Security on Campus is lobbying to make the SchickAct require public disclosure, including the media. Carter said he met with thebill’s co-sponsor, Mark Foley, R-Fla., Friday in hopes of broadening theproposal. Foley and Frelinghuysen are receptive to suggestions but theyare largely seeing the issue through the eyes of the universities who do notwant to risk their reputations, Carter said. Universities claim therelease of the information infringes on students’ right to privacy. Inthe Fall 2003 Report, the Student Press Law Center conducted a nationalsurvey of public and private schools and found that four out of five schoolsrefused, as a matter of policy, to release student disciplinary records. Gordon D. McKerral, national president of the Society of ProfessionalJournalists, is spearheading the movement to broaden FERPA.”While SPJcertainly endorses the goal of Rep. Frelinghuysen’s resolution, it urges yourcommittee to go further.” McKerral wrote in a Sept. 19 letter to Chairman JohnBoehner of the House Committee of Education and the Workforce, where the billwill be heard next. “The media remain dedicated to keeping campus communitiesinformed but routinely get stymied when schools use federal privacy laws to hideserious crimes from the public.”Neither Frelinghuysen nor Foleyresponded to requests for comment on the bill.Some open-recordsadvocates have sued universities for refusing to publicize campus disciplinaryrecords involving crime — with mixed results. In the latest case, theVermont Supreme Court ruled last month that universities must disclose the namesof students found responsible for violent crimes and nonforcible sex offensesunder the state’s open-records laws after a local newspaper sued.

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