Fla. court: Student files are confidential even if identities are concealed

FLORIDA — A state appeals court hasruled that the Seminole County School Board correctly denied a request forstudent discipline forms and a bus surveillance videotape even if all personallyidentifiable information about students were concealed.A unanimousruling on May 14 by a three-judge panel of the Florida 5th District Court ofAppeals upheld a lower court’s decision that Florida students’ educationalrecords cannot be released.The ruling does not involve or affect thefederal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.Between December 2001and January 2002, producer Patti Parker of WFTV, a commercial television stationserving Seminole County and East Central Florida, requested information instudent educational records about a string of incidents occurring on SeminoleCounty school buses. Seminole County School Board officials denied theopen-records request, citing a Florida statute that states, “Every pupilor student shall have a right of privacy with respect to the educational recordskept on him or her.”Parker, who was seeking information for a WFTVnews broadcast, filed suit against the school board.According to theruling, student educational records are both “confidential and exempt[from Florida Open Records laws],” including when personally identifiableinformation is blacked out. Jonathan D. Kaney, lawyer for WFTV, said theruling is bad for the public.“The ruling is pretty destructive tothe public’s ability to review school records,” Kaneysaid.Ned Julian, the school district’s executive director of legalservices and risk management, said the school board takes privacy of studenteducational records seriously. Seminole County schools do not publish honor rolllists and require parental permission before a student can be included in theyearbook, he said.Kaney said the ruling still allows some information toflow from the schools, but it is all in the form of “processed anddistilled” press releases.“We have no way to practiceaccountability control,” he said.Julian said the ruling does notlimit school accountability. He said the media and public still have access toFlorida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) statistics, the district’sfinancial records and other nonstudent-specific records.Julian addedthat information is also available through “collateral sources,”such as police records.WFTV is pursuing an appeal to the Florida SupremeCourt, with a brief asking the court to take the case due by June 28. After WFTVhas filed its brief, the Seminole County School Board has 20 days to respond byasking the court to let the lower court’s ruling stand.

WFTV v. Seminole County School Board, Case No. 5D03-2118 (Fla. 5th Dist. Ct. of App., May 14, 2004)