High school principal cites FERPA, Hazelwood to remove story from student publication

TEXAS — An article written for last month’s student newspaperat Cypress Ridge High School, in Houston, Texas, never made it past the desk ofthe Principal Claudio Garcia.

“He showed no respect for my story and no respect for our mission as thestudent press,” said sophomore Tara Cobler, who investigated a story about BrettGray, a student who was removed from school last November. The story was notpublished in the Rampage, the Cy-Ridge student newspaper, after Garciarefused to comment for the article and “shut down the story,” according toCobler.

Cobler said that Garcia stated this was a privacy issue.

“FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) does not apply to me, itapplies to school officials,” she said to Garcia during one of two meetingsabout her article, “and I had Brett’s mom and his dad’s permission. Neither theparent nor the kid had a problem with it. They wanted their story heard, sothere was no privacy issue.”

Also known as the Buckley Act, FERPA allows the U.S. Department ofEducation to punish colleges and high schools that fail to keep individualstudents’ “educational records” confidential. FERPA applies to recordscontaining students’ identities, along with those “easily traceable” toindividual students.

Cobler said she has been in contact with Mike Hiestand, a legal consultantfor the Student Press Law Center, since her first meeting with Garcia.

“FERPA prohibits school officials from disclosing student educationalrecords unless they have obtained the permission of the student and parent, ifthe student is a minor,” Hiestand said. “In this case, Tara and the students onthe newspaper staff are not school officials, or acting as agents of the school.FERPA does not prohibit them from talking to their classmates and reporting whatthey find out. Moreover, given that Tara had lengthy interviews with both thestudent and his mom, I think it’s a pretty easy call that they’ve consented todisclosing this information.”

According to Cobler, Garcia said “First Amendment rights are not extendedto high school newspapers,” which prompted her to print the limits fromHazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier for Garcia, in order to explainthat her story “does not fall under any of these categories,” she said.

Hazelwood, a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, ruled that highschool administrators can censor school-sponsored publications by showing theyhave a legitimate educational reason for doing so.

“Even under Hazelwood, the principal has to show that his censorshiphas a reasonable educational justification,” Hiestand said. “And no attempt todo so has even been made in this case. While Hazelwood does give schoolofficials greater authority over content than they once had, this principal — like far too many — has mistakenly taken that to mean that he hasan unlimited license to censor.”

Garcia said school officials have the ability to “control” the studentnewspaper.

“Our campus newspaper is not an open forum for indiscriminate use by thegeneral public or campus students and staff,” Garcia said. “Rather it is aneducational course, over which school officials exercise reasonable editorialcontrol to ensure that the pedagogical goals of the course are fulfilled.”

Hiestand believes that “Tara and her staff are simply doing what reportersare supposed to do: find news and report it fairly and accurately.”

Cobler feels that “this is the definition of censorship.” She hassubmitted her story to the Houston Chronicle and is waiting to find outif it will get printed.

“I would be satisfied there because I got my story published,” shesaid.