Salt Lake Tribune wins release of records documenting coach's inappropriate relationship

UTAH — Records documenting an inappropriate relationship between a student and a former high school football coach aren’t protected by FERPA, a Utah committee on public records has ruled.

The State Records Committee decided 3-2 Thursday to release some witness testimony and text messages between the victim and former Cottonwood High School coach Josh Lyman.

The Salt Lake Tribune‘s Sports Reporter Bill Oram asked for name-redacted records documenting the school’s investigation in May. The Granite School District denied the request, stating the documents were created for administrative enforcement and discipline purposes and that releasing them would interfere with the investigation.

Oram appealed the decision, claiming the documents could not interfere with an investigation since the school’s investigation ended with Lyman’s resignation. Oram added that the records would not identify any witnesses if redacted.

A second denial from the school board sent the case to the State Records Committee, which mediates disputes concerning the state’s open records law.

At a hearing Thursday, the school district argued the records were protected under the state open records law as well as the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act of 1974. FERPA protects educational records maintained by schools.

The school district’s police department conducted the investigation. Because of that, the newspaper argued that the documents are law enforcement records, and not educational. Congress amended FERPA in 1992 to specifically exempt law enforcement records.

Larson disagreed, saying state courts should not be allowed to determine what is an educational record. The Department of Education has a very broad definition of educational records obtained for discipline purposes of students, Larson argued. He would not confirm or deny if any students involved in the investigation were disciplined.

In its decision, the committee cited Jennings v. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which required the release of statements made against a university employee.

Larson said the district was disappointed by the committee’s decision.

“We feel like that the decision is arbitrary if they’re going to release some statements but not all statements,” Larson said. “There really isn’t a rationale upon which they can make that determination, in my view.”

Oram considers the committee’s decision a win for the public.

“There is not precedent in our state in our districts with something like this,” Oram said. “Now we have a much stronger footing if we ever need to move more with investigations into teachers.”

The school district has not yet decided if they will appeal the decision, Larson said. The committee’s decision will be released Oct. 18; the school district has 30 days after that during which to appeal.

By Bailey McGowan SPLC staff writer. Contact McGowan by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.