Recent grad sues Michigan school district seeking access to names of expelled students

MICHIGAN — The Hastings Area School System has asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a former student after the district would not release the names of expelled students in its board meeting minutes.

Zach Olson, who was a senior when he requested the names, filed his complaint in May. According to the complaint, he requested, among other things, the names of all the students expelled by board of education action from 2009 to present. He cited the state’s public records and open meetings acts to support his request.

“There were rumors around school that someone had pulled a knife or threatened people with weapons,” Olson said, “and I want to know, for my own well-being, the names of students who were expelled, to know who to avoid.”

Olson, who recently graduated and enlisted in the Army, will leave Michigan at the end of July to go to South Carolina for basic training. He says that even though knowing who the expelled students are will no longer be relevant to his safety, he is still adamant about obtaining the names.

“I’m not expecting to see these students again, it’s just the principle of it,” he said. “I want other families and students to be able to get the records of people who have been expelled for bringing weapons to school so they know for their own safety.”

Olson’s request was denied in part because the district said it would violate FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA is a federal law that makes students’ education records confidential.

Philip Ellison, who is representing Olson pro bono, says this case is a unique opportunity to litigate FERPA under Michigan law.

“FERPA is completely over-abused,” Ellison said. “It is utilized when it favors the school.”

Ellison says that a document is not considered an education record if it is created after the student is no longer in school. He argues that in the case of the meeting minutes, the students were expelled by the board’s vote before the minutes were drafted, which means they are not education records protected under FERPA.

Daniel Martin, an attorney representing the school system, says that is not a legitimate argument.

“A student is a student until the student is expelled by the school board, and the school board acts through its minutes,” Martin said. “So until the board approves the minutes, the student is still a student.”

The district replied to Olson’s complaint in June and requested that it be dismissed in its entirety.

“It’s clearly a student record from our perspective, and from the perspective of the Michigan legislature and from the perspective of the [Department of Education’s] Family Policy Compliance Office,” Martin said.

Ellison said that no court orders have been issued yet, and he is working to establish a set of stipulated facts in the event that the case goes to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

“There isn’t a lot of factual issues to dispute in this case, it’s just simply, ‘does the law require them to put this information in the meeting minutes and make them available, in the case of Zach, through a FOIA request,’” he said.

By Allison Russell, SPLC staff writer. Contact Russell by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.