As your high school newspaper’s top investigative reporter, you arealways keeping your eye out for a good scoop. During the week, you notice a fewpeculiar things:
- On Monday morning, your friend told you that Sparky,an iguana and the school mascot, had mysteriously disappeared.
- OnTuesday, you became suspicious when you noticed a line of mousetraps tuckedunder the food service line in the cafeteria.
- Wednesday morning youwaited more than an hour in the pouring rain for the school bus. Belching blacksmoke, the bus came clanging and squeaking, waking up the neighborhood. Whatfollowed was a gut-jarring bus ride you will not soon forget. You decide to walkhome.
- Wednesday afternoon, on the way to trigonometry, you got stuck inthe elevator — again. It took them 15 minutes to get you out and yourunsympathetic math teacher gave you extra math problems for beingtardy.
- Thursday, after history class, you discovered that somebody hadbroken into your locker. They took your lucky Tiger Woods trading card and yourSlinky. After talking to some friends, you learned that you were the fifthvictim of locker theft that week. Does Richard M. Nixon High School really havea crime problem? You wonder.
It’s now Friday and you are hot on the trailof all these school happenings. After all, the public has a right to know aboutthese things and personally you really miss that Slinky. So you go to yourprincipal’s office to talk to him about your various experiences. But toyour surprise, you find out that Mr. Belding is in Hawaii for the next month — something about an educators’ conference. Now what do youdo?
While the above examples are meant to be humorous, you may be facedwith similar real-life situations that are anything but funny and requireserious investigation. Fortunately, many of the questions raised by our examplescould be answered by locating and reviewing various pubic records and reportskept by most school districts or other government agencies, including:
- cafeteria and food inspection records
- bus inspection records
- buildinginspection records
- the school budget
- school accreditation reports
- school academic performance reports
- school crime and violencereports
These records are generally open to the public and should bereleased voluntarily by school and/or government officials, assuming suchrecords exist, though the specific type of documents and information availablecan vary by state and even by school.
For example, some states requireofficials to compile more detailed crime information or a more in-depth buildingmaintenance plan than other states. Likewise, some state and school officialsmay be more cooperative and accommodating than others. Consequently, althoughmost of these records should be readily available, you should be prepared tocourteously, but firmly assert your right to review these records under yourstate’s open records law in case you are denied access tothem.
Every state has its own open records law. All laws, however,essentially say that it is the public’s right to know what theirgovernment officials — including public school officials — are upto. An open records law recognizes that one of the most effective ways citizenscan do this is by being permitted access to most government records anddocuments.
Some states have taken this commitment to openness seriously.These states have allowed few exceptions to their law and have adoptedenforcement measures that encourage compliance. Other states have beennotoriously lax in following through on their promises to open up thegovernmental process to public scrutiny. These states have allowed for broad,seemingly catch-all exemptions, which have allowed government officials to skirtthe law with very little threat of penalty. Most states, however, fall somewherein the middle.
Making a request
An informal request for the relevant records should be enough to get theinformation you want. Just asking the appropriate school or government officialpolitely should be all that it takes. However, if your informal request is notsuccessful, you may be forced to invoke the power of your state’s openrecords law by making a formal request in writing.
In this letter, youwill want to describe the records you are looking for in as much detail aspossible, cite your state’s open records law and ask that you be providedwith a written explanation should your request be denied. To make things easy,the Student Press Law Center Web site includes a free, automated lettergenerator that allows users to create a formal public records request lettertailored to their specific state’s law. Find it at:www.splc.org/foiletter
Once your letter is complete, submit it to theperson or office that you believe is responsible for maintaining the records youseek (for example, for your school’s budget report, try yourschool’s central administration office). Many of the state laws requireagencies to respond to your request within a specified time (generally 3 to 10working days); others only require a response within a “reasonable”time.
Since the information available may vary by state, this article providesonly a general guide about what types of records and information may beavailable to high school journalists.
For more specific informationabout what your state does or does not require under its freedom of informationlaws, check out the excellent 50-state (and the District of Columbia) OpenGovernment Guide, published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of thePress. A one-of-a-kind, comprehensive resource published specifically forjournalists, no newsroom — student or commercial — should be withoutit. You can view it free at: www.rcfp.org/ogg.
Also, students at privatehigh schools should be aware that their schools might not be required to releasethe same information as public schools. However, if the information you seek isheld by a government agency (for example, cafeteria inspection recordsmaintained by your county’s health department) and not just by your school(such as a school budget report), the information is available from thegovernment agency regardless of whether you attend a public or private school.
Cafeteria and food inspection records
Your concern aboutthe mousetraps has sparked your interest in doing an investigation of the schoolcafeteria. Your two major concerns in this area are whether the cafeteria ismeeting sanitation requirements and whether its food is meeting nutritionalrequirements. Fortunately, records are maintained about both of thesematters.
Cafeteria inspection records detailing health violations andproblem areas should be available to the public upon request at your local foodinspection office, which is a government agency. Try looking up”Inspections” under your county in the government pages of yourtelephone directory. Or call your state health department and ask them where youcan find the records you want. They should be able to direct you to theappropriate place.
Most states require their school cafeterias and otherfood facilities to be inspected at least once or twice a year. The number ofinspections conducted upon a particular food facility will often depend uponthat facility’s “risk profile” or, in other words, on theresults of past inspections of that facility.
Most food facilityinspections are conducted at the local level by county or city health inspectionofficials rather than by the state health department. Although the state willprovide minimum requirements, some cities or counties may impose stricterrequirements in their areas.
Another record in which you might beinterested is your school’s nutritional program review report. Mostschools are required to fill out a report (and in some cases, several reports)that show whether your school is meeting federal and state nutritionalrequirements. However, this form is complicated so you may want to talk to aschool official about what the record means.
A copy of this report shouldbe located at your school system’s Food and Nutritional ServiceDepartment, probably at the district’s central office. If you havedifficulty locating these records, try contacting your state’s educationdepartment, which may either have a copy of the completed forms or may be ableto direct you as to where to find this information.
Safetyinspection records for school buses
Too afraid to take the bus to schoolanymore but too lazy to walk to school, you are eager to get to the bottom ofthe bus story.
While the federal government establishes safety guidelinesand sets manufacturing standards for school buses, once the bus is on the road,state laws and regulations kick in. According to the National Association forPupil Transportation, school bus safety vehicle inspection programs vary greatlyfrom state to state. Some states have no formal inspection requirements. Othershave very specific, thorough guidelines that require regular inspections bycertified third-parties. Most states fall somewhere in between, however, andrequire that each school bus be inspected about twice a year.
School businspection records are usually maintained at the county level and should beavailable at the district transportation office. In some states, such recordsmay also be available at the state level.
Student journalists interestedin obtaining these records should contact their county transportation office. Ifyou cannot find the number, ask your state’s Department of EducationTransportation Division. The School Transportation News Web site maintains anational list of contact information, including links to state databases, whereavailable, that maintain some school bus safety information online.
Because of the large number of records (each bus is individuallyinspected and, generally, a separate record is created for each) and the highcost of photocopying them, you may find it easier and cheaper to set up anappointment to personally inspect the records. Further, while not all schoolscompile them, you should ask whether or not your bus system creates a periodicsummary of inspection findings for its entire fleet.
After some investigation, it turns out that you arenot alone in your experiences with the elevator as friends recount their warstories with the mechanical beast.
Finding out information about yourschool’s elevators and about other maintenance issues at your school maybe easier than you think. Most school systems conduct their own buildinginspections in order to determine how to allocate its resources. These reports,sometimes called maintenance plans, should be available at public schools. Youshould find them at your district’s central administration office or theremay be a separate office for “facilities operations,” whichmaintains these records.
Additionally, a copy of your school’sbuilding inspection report may also provide you with the information you arelooking for. These reports will detail the problems with building maintenance,including electrical, mechanical and plumbing concerns as well as problems withthe elevators. The reports might also include information on handicapaccessibility.
In addition to the school’s own inspections, state orlocal governments typically also require a sanitation inspection, a fire safetyinspection, an asbestos survey and/or elevator inspections. These records may beavailable at your district’s central office or you may have to contactyour state’s Education Department in order to find out where these recordsare kept
Information concerning the maintenance of your school buildingmay also be found in your school’s accreditation report, which isdiscussed later in this article.
To see what aspects of buildingmaintenance are priorities to your school, you may also want to check out whatyour school is spending on building maintenance by looking at yourschool’s budget, which is discussed next.
A school’s budget report contains a wealth of informationthat no student news organization should be without. With the budget in hand,you can find out what your school’s priorities are, how your school spendsits money and how much money it generates in revenue. The report should list thesalaries of many school employees and would show you if the school paid for yourprincipal’s trip to Hawaii. It would also, for example, let you compare how muchwas spent last year on new books for the library and for new equipment for thefootball team. The report may also include information concerning enrollment,pupil-teacher ratios and per pupil cost.
Public school budget reportsare issued annually and are open to the public. Copies of your school district’sbudget should be available at your district’s central administrationoffice. You may also be able to find copies posted on the district’s Web site orat your public library.
And as long as you are on a roll, it is worthpointing out that school budgets are generally discussed and approved by yourschool board, which holds regular meetings throughout the year. By law, thesemeetings — with a few very specific exceptions — are open to thepublic and might be worth covering.
Private school students may have atougher time getting information on the financial inner-workings of theirschool. Hopefully, since you (thanks Mom and Dad) pay the school’s billswith your tuition, school officials will voluntarily provide you withinformation on how school money is being spent, including official budgetstatements. They are probably not, however, legally required to do so. If theyput up a stink, you can ask to see a copy of the school’s IRS Form 990,the federal tax return required of all nonprofit organizations. This form willcontain, among other things, useful information on school income and expenses,salary information and information about school investments. Under federal law,the Form 990, unlike a private school’s school budget, must be madeavailable to anyone who asks to see it during the school’s normal businesshours. Copies may also be available at www.guidestar.org, which maintains a hugedatabase of nonprofit organizations’ Form 990’s. More information about the IRSForm 990 is available in the Student Press Law Center’s packet, “IRSForm 990: A Public Record for the Private School Journalist.”
School accreditation records
Given your hypothetical week,you probably wonder how your school ever received its stamp of approval and howyour school plans to address these situations. This information may be found inyour school’s accreditation report.
Copies of your school’saccreditation report should be available at your district’s centraladministration office and/or on its Web site. Some districts may even keep acopy of it in the public library.
Most American public schools areaccredited by one of six regional accrediting associations in the country, suchas the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools (which covers primary andsecondary schools in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah andWashington). Although the six regional accreditingagencies are all private, non-profit, independent associations with varyingstandards, most accreditation reports should contain similar information. Oncethese reports are sent to your school, they should be public information.Included among the general areas examined during a school’s accreditationare: the curriculum, the school’s mission, the library facilities, theguidance program and building maintenance.
Though the accreditationprocess can vary by region, most follow a three-step procedure. First, schoolswill conduct a “self-study” in which the total school program willbe evaluated by teachers, administrators, students and parents at each school.Next, an evaluation of the school’s program will be done by a visitingcommittee of professional educators who are supposed to provide an unbiasedreview of the school’s self-study. Finally, the first two steps culminatein the formation of a school improvement plan, which includes what specificmeasures the school will take to improve.
Accreditation periods can varydepending on the findings of the accreditation body. The Western Association ofSchools and Colleges, which accredits schools in California and Hawaii, normallylooks at schools every six years unless specific concerns need to be addressed.
Academic performance reports
With all the distractionsinvolved in your hypothetical week, you begin to wonder whether yourschool’s academic performance is below the state and national averages.But how can you find out if this is so?
That information and otheracademic data will be available in your school’s academic performancereport and other school reports.
Under the federal No Child Left BehindAct of 2001, every state, district or school that receives federal educationfunding is required to compile and publish for public distribution a detailed”report card” that includes a school’s and district’s standardized test scores,graduation rates and other indicators that demonstrate whether or not a schoolis making adequate yearly progress. All states and almost all schools now makesuch information available online and it should be fairly easy to track downthrough either your state Education Department or school district’s Web site.Alternatively, you can find links to school performance information for all 50states at www.psk12.com
State or local school district reportsconcerning a school’s academic achievements, which in some cases mayinclude more information than required by federal law, may also sometimes beavailable. Such reports might include SAT test score comparisons, teacher-pupilclass ratios, drop out statistics, the number of students in each grade leveland some financial data.
Reports on crime statistics on schoolgrounds
Your investigation into whether your school has a crime problemmay be your most challenging. Many schools are reluctant to release their crimestatistics and few states require schools to issue detailed crimereports.
According to the national Center for the Prevention of SchoolViolence (CPSV), eight states (Alabama,California, Delaware, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina andVirginia) required detailed school crime reports as of 2007. In Virginia, forexample, the annual report on crime and violence compiled by the state educationdepartment includes a breakdown of approximately two-dozen categories of crimesand the number of incidents reported by different schools in thestate.
Other states may have different, often less comprehensive,reports. Maryland, for example, compiles a suspension offenses report, whichlists the total number of incidents (for example, possession of dangeroussubstances or weapons) receiving school suspensions. This list, however, doesnot distinguish between crimes and other conduct resulting in suspensions. Tofind out what type of report your state requires, contact your state educationdepartment or visit the CPSV Web site.
Also, even though some states donot require schools to issue a report on crime to the state educationdepartment, schools should still have some records concerning crimes on campussince they must report them to law enforcement officials. In some cases, forexample, your school district might compile an annual statistical report thattracks their crime problem. Where they exist, these records should be available,but might require a formal request to your school district office or local lawenforcement agency. In many cases, as discussed below, federal and/or state lawallows officials to redact information from such records that would identify aminor.
Records identifying individuals
Though the law recognizes a citizen’s interest in knowing about theactivities of his government, the law also realizes that this interest mustsometimes yield to an individual’s right to privacy. Therefore, probablythe most common reason that a school or state official would deny your requestis that it would identify students or other individuals by name.
Examplesof records that might identify individuals by name include personnel records,disciplinary reports and bus driver background checks. In some (but definitelynot all) cases, the law may permit school or government officials to withholdsuch records unless redacting or blacking out information in the report cansecure individuals’ privacy interests. For example, crime incident reportsinvolving minors can often be released after law enforcement or school officialshave deleted the name of all individuals involved. The report would still havevalue to the reporter, however, since it will provide the official descriptionof the incident as well as where and when the incident took place.
Finally, a federal law known as the Family Educational Rights andPrivacy Act (FERPA), restricts the release of a student’s “education records” byschool officials without student (or, in some cases, parental) consent if suchrecords would individually identify that student. Unfortunately, FERPA’srequirements are frequently misunderstood — or abused — by schoolofficials. If you encounter resistance based on FERPA (or for that matter, anyother reason), ask that the government official provide a specific (andpreferably, written) reason for their denial. If you still have questions,contact the Student Press Law Center for more information.
High school journalists — like all journalists — should not becontent to print only what falls into their laps. There is a great wealth ofinformation about your high school that is ripe for discovery. Go find it.Explore the different records and information for yourself and do not beintimidated or discouraged if you are initially denied access to the informationyou want. Sometimes school and government officials will not takestudent journalists’ requests for information seriously. Remain courteousand “professional,” but challenge this conduct. Remind school and governmentofficials of their responsibilities to operate openly. And, when necessary,assert your rights under your state’s open records law. If you run intoglitches, ask your adviser for help or contact the Student Press Law Center.