Vt. newspaper loses bid to obtain student disciplinary records

A St. Johnsbury newspapercannot obtain access to disciplinary records of students in the Vermont statecollege system, but it can learn the “final results” of some campus crimes, theVermont Supreme Court ruled Sept. 5.

In what appeared to end athree-year-long battle between the Caledonian-Record and the Vermontstate college system, the court ruled that Vermont state law prohibits therelease of students’ educational records, which the court said includesdisciplinary records.

“Although the [Vermont] Public Records Act does notdefine ‘student record,’ the language of the exception is broad andunqualified,” wrote Associate Justice Marilyn Skoglund for the court’smajority.
The Caledonian-Record requested records,including minutes, from student disciplinary hearings at Lyndon State College in2000. The newspaper argued that it should have access to the reports, whichinvolved allegations of criminal behavior by students, including the names ofoffenders, so that the public could gain awareness of college safety issues,such as illegal drug abuse, binge drinking, hazing, theft and othercrimes.

SPLC View: Despite the loss by the Caledonian-Record,this case may actually prove helpful to journalists outside Vermont seekingaccess to their campus court records. The Vermont Supreme Court reaffirmed thatjournalists are entitled to the “final results” of cases involving more seriousoffenses where a student is found guilty. Also, the court noted in its decisionthat it is not clear whether the federal Family Educational Rights and PrivacyAct actually prohibits the disclosure of student disciplinary records or simplyimposes financial penalties for schools that decide to open student records tothe public. If the latter, as we have long argued, schools would be less able toduck their obligation to disclose otherwise public records simply by citingFERPA. The Caledonian-Record could not be helped by that argument becauseVermont has a separate state exemption for student records, which the courtrelied on in making its decision. Not all states do.