Alaska court rules school district must release terms of legal settlement

ALASKA — A state court ruled June 25 that a federal student privacy law does not prohibit disclosure of lawsuit settlement terms reached by the Anchorage School District and that the school district could not enter into confidential settlements because it is a public body.

The court found that the district’s use of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act as a justification for not releasing the details of legal settlements was improper.

The issue arose when the Anchorage Daily News discovered that the district settled a lawsuit and kept the terms of the settlement confidential. The newspaper asked the district to disclose the settlement agreement, citing a 1989 Alaska Supreme Court decision that said the public has a right to know terms of settlements that involve public money under the state open records law. The school district then asked for clarification from the court, which ordered that the settlement be unsealed.

The school district argued that a settlement agreement involving a student is part of that student’s education record. FERPA imposes financial penalties on schools that release education records without consent.

A letter from the U.S. Department of Education’s Family Policy Compliance Office to the school district’s lawyers states that a settlement agreement between a student and the school district meets FERPA’s definition of an education record. It also states that if an institution had a policy of disclosing settlement agreements involving students it risks losing all federal funding.

The court order stated that a settlement agreement is not part of a student’s education record.

“Nothing in the settlement touches on the issue of education,” District Court Judge Sen Tan stated in the court order.

As a result of the ruling, the district disclosed June 30 that it paid $4.5 million — $1 million from the district and $3.5 million from its insurance company — to the parents of a boy who attempted to hang himself in November 1998 after intense bullying by other students at school, the Anchorage Daily News reported. The boy suffered severe brain damage from the incident.

Tan also noted that if the settlement were an educational record, it could still be disclosed because the boy’s family gave permission for it to be released.

“We still have a serious concern with [personal] information disclosed in some of these settlements,” Anchorage Schools Superintendent Carol Comeau said July 3 in the Anchorage Daily News. “But the downside [to settling] is the feeling that we’re trying to cover up things.”

Since the ruling, the Anchorage Daily News has learned from other unsealed documents that the district has settled 18 lawsuits with claims totaling $900,450 since September 2000. The paper also reported that the settlements were originally sealed at the district’s insistence.

The district has 30 days from the release of the order to appeal. It has not yet decided if it will do so.

In re T.F., Case No. 3AN-02-494 (Alaska Super. Ct., June 25, 2004)