Judge says records in Cornell hazing death aren’t protected by FERPA

Earlier this month, a New York state Supreme Court judge said records dealing with a 2011 hazing incident and previous misconduct within Cornell University’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter are not protected by FERPA, the federal student privacy law. Under the ruling, the records must be turned over to the mother of a student who was hazed to death.

Sophomore George Desdunes was found dead after the 2011 hazing event, which according to media accounts involved making fraternity members drink shots of alcohol until they vomited. His mother, Marie Lourdes Andre, is suing the SAE fraternity and the officers and members of its Cornell chapter. The family’s attorney subpoenaed information from Cornell University concerning previous misconduct within the fraternity (including allegations, disciplinary proceedings and correspondence) and the investigation into Desdunes’ death.

In July, attorneys representing Joshua Shandell, who is named in the lawsuit, filed a motion to quash the subpoena, citing FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. They argued, according to court records, that FERPA allows only the results of a disciplinary proceedings to be released. Andre’s attorney asserted that the subpoena was not a “fishing expedition,” as the defense called it, but was in fact “seek[ing] information that is directly related to Defendant SAE’s knowledge of the extreme and dangerous – in fact, deadly – hazing.”

Cornell was not fighting the subpoena. Attorneys for the university agreed with Andre’s attorney  in court filings and said the relevant section of FERPA was the portion that allows educational institutions to provide information in compliance “with a judicial order or lawfully issued subpoena.”

New York state Supreme Court judge Karen Rothenberg’s ruling will allow the records to be released under the condition that she examine them first to ensure that any FERPA-protected information included in the documents is not released.