Florida colleges ask court to revisit FERPA case involving student who complained about professor

More than two dozen Florida colleges and universities have filed a brief in support of a Florida college’s appeal after it was ordered to turn over an email from a student about a professor.

After his contract wasn’t renewed in 2009, Darnell Rhea, a former adjunct professor at Santa Fe College, asked to see an email between a former student and one of his supervisors concerning his conduct. Santa Fe redacted the student’s name, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects educational records.

A trial court judge backed the college’s interpretation, but a state appeals court overturned the decision in July, ruling that the email in question was a public record and must be released to Rhea.

Some of the state’s largest schools have signed the friend-of-the-court brief, including Florida State University, the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida. The 27 schools say the court’s decision requires schools to assess records under a new standard that offers little guidance, according to the brief. They’re also concerned they will risk losing their federal education funding if they release private information in violation of FERPA — although that penalty has never been enforced in the statute’s 38-year history.

Santa Fe College filed its motion for an en banc rehearing in August and is still waiting to hear the judge’s ruling on that motion, said Patti Locascio, the school’s general counsel. In an en banc hearing, the case would be heard in front of a panel of judges. The court doesn’t have to grant the school’s request.

Locascio said she hoped the appeal is heard and the court clarifies its decision in terms of students’ right to privacy.

“There is a lot of confusion on what to follow now,” she said. “FERPA seems to be pretty clear on this but the court feels otherwise.”