Punching holes in FERPA secrecy

To recognize “Sunshine Week,” a national commemoration of thevital importance of transparency in government, the journalism interns at theStudent Press Law Center conduct an annual “compliance audit” totest whether schools and colleges truly honor their duty to disclose publicrecords.

This year, we focused on the disciplinary mechanisms maintained by collegesand universities to pass judgment on student misconduct complaints. We did sobecause these disciplinary systems at times handle cases of great publicimportance in secrecy. While the public probably thinks of a “studentconduct” infraction as sneaking a beer in a dorm room, in fact manyconduct boards handle serious allegations — including rapes — thatwould be punishable as felonies if referred to law enforcement.

To achieve nationwide coverage, we teamed with journalism students at threeschools — Humboldt State University, the University of Wisconsin atMilwaukee and the University of North Texas —with a reputation foraggressive journalism. We thank professors Marcy Burstiner, Jessica McBride andKathie Hinnen for throwing themselves into this undertaking and guiding theirstudents through what at times was a frustrating search for answers.

The results of our team’s reporting are featured in thisissue’s cover story (see page 6) and on our Web site. We hope that we havekindled greater interest among the student journalists on these campuses — and others nationwide — in asking tough questions about the nature ofcases being processed through secretive “campus courts,” and whetherthese mechanisms best serve the interests of public safety and justice.

One heartening result of the audit was that relatively few schools invokedthe false justification of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act todecline open-records requests. Almost all schools we surveyed understood thatFERPA confidentiality applies only to individually identifiable student records,and not to anonymous statistical data we were after.

Elsewhere, however, the news is not as encouraging. At college aftercollege, student journalists are being told that very basic information in whichthere is no legitimate privacy interest is confidential under FERPA.

Just recently, student journalists at Ocean County College in New Jerseywere refused access to information confirming whether individuals actuallyattended the school. College officials claimed that this information — which most colleges give out routinely — is confidential FERPAinformation.

Student journalists at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee decided notto take their school’s unfounded invocations of FERPA lying down. Editorsof the Post and for the broadcast program PantherVision are askingWisconsin’s attorney general for a ruling that student government recordsare subject to disclosure under Wisconsin’s sunshine law. And SPLCvolunteer counsel is working with Post Editor Jonathan Anderson onseeking a broader resolution to that school’s misapplication of FERPA.

With your support, the SPLC will continue to be the leading advocateagainst runaway secrecy of school records. We encourage you to let us knowwhenever you encounter a FERPA roadblock, so that we can continue building thecase to help Congress understand the urgency of FERPA reform.

— Frank LoMonte, executive director