Newspaper loses fight for disciplinary records

VERMONT — A commercial newspaper cannot access disciplinary records of students in the Vermont state college system, but it can learn the “final results” of some campus crimes, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in September.

In what appeared to end a three-year-long battle between The (St. Johnsbury) Caledonian-Record and the Vermont state college system, the court ruled that Vermont state law prohibits the release of students’ educational records, which the court said include disciplinary records.

 The Caledonian-Record’s request for records and minutes from student disciplinary hearings at Lyndon State College was denied more than three years ago. The newspaper sued, arguing that it should have access to reports involving allegations of student criminal behavior to increase public awareness of college safety issues, such as illegal drug use, binge drinking, hazing, theft and other crimes. 

The supreme court disagreed, ruling that the disclosure of the disciplinary records would violate students’ right to privacy under the state open-records law and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that regulates the disclosure of student records. 

The decision did have some silver linings for the newspaper, however. Citing an exception in FERPA, the court ruled that the “final results” of student discipline proceedings must be made public if the cases involved a student found responsible for a violent crime or a nonforcible sex offense. 

In addition, the court’s comments on FERPA could have an effect on journalists’ ability to access student records under the federal law. The court noted in its decision that it is not clear whether FERPA actually prohibits the disclosure of student disciplinary records or simply imposes financial penalties for schools that open their student disciplinary records to the public.

“We note, however, that state and federal courts are sharply divided on this issue,” the court wrote.

Open-records and campus-safety advocates have mixed feelings about the decision.

S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus, a Pennsylvania-based organization dedicated to college campus safety, said he was pleased with the concessions the court made for public access.

“Student and professional newspapers will now be better equipped to do their jobs … and most importantly, students will be safer knowing if their peers are potential threats to their safety,” Carter said.

He added, however, that the only way to ensure campus safety is to make all student records involving criminal misbehavior available to the public. The problem is, Carter said, universities are reluctant to release such campus crime records because doing so would publicize a security risk and injure schools’ reputations.

  The Vermont state college system saw the outcome as a clear victory for student privacy.

  “What is paramount to us is [that] we can protect student privacy,” said Judy Beaupre, dean of institutional advancement at Lyndon State College. “As a former journalist, I advocate free speech, but we have a very strong security system and do not think this will jeopardize student safety in the least.” 

CASE: Caledonian-Record Pub. Co., Inc. v. Vermont State Colleges, 833 A.2d 1273 (Vt. 2003)