TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Bypassing the FERPA roadblock to tell compelling stories about school disciplinary trends

Statistics about discipline are some of the most closely guarded secrets that schools keep — but they’re also some of the most essential for the public to know about.

It’s now well-documented that nonwhite students are singled out disproportionately for expulsion or suspension, for the same infractions that would merely earn a white student a stern lecture.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice disclosed that its investigation of City of Meridian, Miss., had found a widespread pattern of students being placed under arrest and hauled off to juvenile detention — not for violations of state law, but for violations of noncriminal school disciplinary rules as minor as noncompliance with the dress code. Those singled out for mistreatment, the DOJ Civil Rights Division reported, disproportionately were African-American children and children with disabilities.

The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism collaborative, published an award-winning December 2011 series capturing the increasing criminalization of school misbehavior, resulting in the expulsion of kids as young as third-graders for nonviolent infractions such as “defiance of authority.”

Schools habitually cry “FERPA” — the federal student privacy law — when asked any question about the imposition of discipline. But the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act applies only to records that refer to identifiable individual students, not to aggregate data. Once student names and ID numbers are removed, then a document ceases to be a confidential FERPA record, and if it is otherwise covered by the state’s open-records act, then it must be made available for public inspection.

For example, in 2007 the Montana Supreme Court ordered the release of disciplinary records — with just the students’ names removed — showing how a school district disciplined students who were caught shooting their classmates with BB guns. The notion that FERPA forecloses all inquiries into how schools punish people has been wholly discredited by the courts, and journalists should assertively push back against such misapplications of privacy law to defeat public accountability.

How a school punishes categories of infractions — or doesn’t — is a matter of manifest public interest (and if the school says that it isn’t keeping count, the next question should be “why not”).

To get started obtaining school disciplinary data, the best place to start sometimes isn’t the school.

State Departments of Education collect — and often publish online — “school climate” surveys that include statistics about crime, violence and discipline in public schools. For example, here is Virginia’s, here is Louisiana’s, and here is Florida’s. While not every state publishes school-by-school data online, each state Department of Education should have that school-specific information available on request. (And if the state’s online data is behind-the-times — Florida hasn’t updated its site since the 2008 school year — make a phone call and find out why.)

Any public school ought to honor a journalist’s request to see this “school climate” survey data — but at the first sign of  foot-dragging, journalists should use the backup plan of a call (and if necessary, an open-records request) to the statewide agency, which may be less motivated to resist disclosure.

And for a statewide perspective, it’s hard to beat the reports compiled by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center on Education Statistics — if it can be counted, measured or quantified, chances are the NCES has already done it for you. This data is a terrific starting point — from which an enterprising reporter can build a story that is not just about statistics and trends, but about the human impact of zero-tolerance overreaction and the young lives that it is altering for the worse.