Wash. court rules FERPA prohibits access to notes from student interviews

WASHINGTON — A state court has ruled that the University of Washington cannot give a commercial newspaper in Tacoma the notes of interviews with 18 student athletes conducted as part of an internal investigation into a former team doctor.

The public university conducted an investigation into alleged overmedication of its softball team by coaches and the team’s doctor. In the internal investigation, the university interviewed coaches, administrators, doctors, athletic trainers and 18 current and former Husky Women’s softball players.

In April 2004, the university issued a report on the investigation, which included information provided by the 18 students.

Following a request by The News Tribune, the university disclosed more than 1,000 pages of handwritten interview notes, but would not release notes from the student interviews. The newspaper stipulated that all personally identifiable information contained in the notes could be blacked-out.

According to the June 22 ruling, the interview notes are “educational records” as defined by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

FERPA is a federal law that withholds funds from educational institutions that have “a policy or practice of releasing, or providing access to, any personally identifiable information in education records,” without written consent.

“I thought that if [the judge] was going to be taking a look at the documents that he would probably find that FERPA wasn’t applicable,” said Bill Holt, lawyer for The News Tribune.

In his decision, King County Superior Court Judge James Doerty stated that if the documents were redacted to the point where no student could be identified, “the notes would be useless.”

“I am also surprised at the conclusion that everything would have to be redacted. I don’t understand how there can be that much personally identifiable information in the document,” Holt said.

A brief The News Tribune submitted to the court stated, “[The News Tribune] wishes to see the notes of the interviews to find out what more these students said that was not disclosed in the report and to confirm the accuracy of the report.”

The News Tribune has 30 days to file an appeal, but it is yet to make a decision on whether it will.

Tacoma News, Inc. v. University of Washington, No. 04-2-12042-0 SEA (Wash. Sup. Ct. King Co., June 22, 2004)

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