Alaska court orders school to release settlement terms

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

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

FERPA is a federal law that withholds federal 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. 

The U.S. Department of Education defines education records as files that are directly related to students and maintained by an educational agency or institution.

The issue arose when the Anchorage Daily News discovered that the district settled a lawsuit involving a student’s attempted suicide 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 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. 

The court order, however, 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.

The district has not yet decided if it will appeal.

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