SUNSHINE WEEK: School officials, journalists battle over access to student directory information

Earlier this week

Last year’s stories

A citizen’s right to know and journalists’ rights to report are threatened every day, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned the weeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize the importance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is celebrating Sunshine Week with a series of reports on how student journalists can encourage open government and use open records to expand their journalistic horizons and let the sunshine in.

It is your senior year and finally your turn to shine. You have been assigned a hot story about a drug bust at your school and you may be able to beat the local paper to the punch. The story is written, but you want to talk to some of the students allegedly involved. Their information is not in the local phone book so you stop into the school office and make a request for directory information, but it is denied. The reason? The school you attend has tightened its open records policy.

Every state’s policy on releasing student information is different, and federal and state laws provide guidelines for schools — and those looking for information — about what can or must be released.

Conflicts in Ohio over the release of public school student information has led to changes to one school district’s student information policy and have also spurred efforts to restrict state open records laws by another group.

The Ohio Department of Education requested student directory information from public schools throughout the state to contact students in the district who are eligible for state vouchers to attend private school, but were denied by the Cincinnati Public Schools, according to district spokesperson Janet Walsh.

A federal law that regulates the release of educational information is the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which applies to any school that receives funding from the U.S. Department of Education.

According to the statute, schools can release “directory” information that often includes students’ names, addresses, telephone numbers, dates and places of birth, honors and awards and attendance records. FERPA also requires that parents of minor students must be informed of and have the opportunity to opt out of having their child’s information disclosed.

State open records laws require most states to release some directory information, however, schools and access advocates often disagree about exactly what information must be made public.

Although the request by the Ohio Department of Education is legitimate, Walsh said the district recently reevaluated the content of its directory information to exclude such contact information as phone numbers and addresses, which she says is permissible by Ohio law.

The Ohio Revised Code states that “no school district board of education shall impose any restriction on the presentation of directory information that it has designated as subject to release in accordance with the “Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974.’ “

“We have been concerned for a while about a heightened sense of wanting to ensure that student privacy is protected,” Walsh said. “Our interest was to be able to share with the general public accomplishments of our students, but not expose [the students] to perhaps unwanted or unwarranted intrusion of their privacy,” using child predators as an example.

Central Ohio school districts also recently fought a similar battle when The Columbus Dispatch, a Columbus newspaper, contacted 17 area suburban school districts for student directory information, including students’ names, addresses and dates of birth.

Once word reached parents, more than 60 phone calls and e-mails were received from by the Dublin City School District, according to an article from the Dispatch.

Dublin City School Board President Chris Valentine said the Dublin district was the first to notify parents of the newspaper’s request and has therefore received the “brunt” of the attention. He added that the notification was a courtesy to the parents, not a requirement of a district policy or privacy law.

As a result, a committee is currently being organized to work with local legislators on “tightening” state public records laws. Valentine said that state Rep. Jim Hughes (R-Columbus) and state Sen. Steve Stivers (R-Upper Arlington) have already expressed “willingness to look at a solution to this problem.”

The two major goals of this new committee are to gather grassroots support in the local community and to make parents in other districts aware of laws impacting their children’s privacy, Valentine said.

Dublin School District spokesman Doug Baker said nearly a month was spent consulting the district’s attorney who told school officials they were “compelled” by law to comply with the request.

“We take a lot of pride in educating our students on online safety,” Baker said. “To be compelled by law to turn over personally identifiable information conflicts with our ideals of safety.”

New Albany-Plain Local School District was another district contacted by the Dispatch. District Community Relations Coordinator Lu Ann Stoia said the administration was also concerned about the students’ safety and subsequently submitted the information on a password-protected disk.

With much concern from administrators and parents about the release of student information, professional and student media advocates fear for future restrictions of open records laws and their impact on professional and student journalists.

In an article from the Dispatch, Editor Benjamin Marrison said information requests like this one are only typically used for contacting families for a story and correctly spelling names.

“Our intent is not to alarm or anger,” Marrison said, “but to do all that we can so that our stories are accurate, fair and complete.”

Public records and civil rights Attorney Daniel Stotter agrees that although some legitimate privacy concerns exist, “You’ve got to have some tool for citizen oversight.”

According to the Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee Chair John Bowen, informed journalists, student or otherwise, help cultivate an informed community. He also said that from this experience, student journalists learn “how the free flow of information only strengthens a democracy” by using and informing their audience about open records.

“This situation could be a good, double-edged lesson for student media,” Bowen. “On the one hand, student journalists can, and should, have access to directory information on their peers. Such public information can be used, as the Columbus Dispatch said [in its article] it tried to obtain the data, for reasons of accuracy and thoroughness, essentials for media credibility.”

By Erica Hudock, SPLC staff writer

Have you enjoyed our Sunshine Week coverage this week? Do you have any suggestions for next year? Have you used some of our tips and want to share your successes or trials? Email us and tell us all about it!