TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: This school year, let’s resolve to fix FERPA — by “breaking” it

At the University of Oklahoma, if you ask for the chance to inspect your own education records, the university knows just what to do. They gather your grades, transcripts, financial aid forms and minor disciplinary write-ups.

But if you make a public-records request for someone else’s parking ticket, prepare to be told: Sorry, that’s an education record. Even though the campus parking patrol has been sticking them under people’s windshield wipers for decades — hardly something you’d do with a student’s confidential grade report.

Indeed, Oklahoma feels so strongly about this double standard — the parking tickets are federally protected secrets when reporters ask to see other people’s, but not when students ask to review their own — that they’re fighting one of their own students in court to prove a point that colleges in North Carolina and Maryland have already been told is wrong.

The culprit is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA“), the federal student confidentiality statute that — in the hands of colleges and schools bent on frustrating journalists’ inquiries — is regularly twisted into an excuse to withhold clearly non-confidential records that the public is entitled to see. No piece of information, no matter how harmless, is safe from the secrecy oil-slick that is FERPA — from swim-meet scores, to audiotapes of public meetings, to arrest records, to the names of elected student government officials.

College and school attorneys have made a nice living lying to the public for years about FERPA, insisting they’re doing no more than what Congress intended. That would be news to the member of Congress most responsible for FERPA, former Sen. James Buckley, who has denounced the flagrant misuse of the statute referred to in his honor as the “Buckley Amendment.”

Because colleges and schools have invested so deeply in making sure the U.S. Department of Education and Congress never remove this roadblock to public accountability, there’s only one way to fix this colossally broken statute.

By breaking it the rest of the way.

This fall, resolve to help expose the hypocrisy of colleges that misuse FERPA to conceal their own wrongdoing, by using the narrowest definition of FERPA when students ask to see their own “education records” and the broadest possible one when a reporter comes knocking.

The Department of Education has said, unequivocally, that the twin rights embodied in FERPA — the right of access and the right of privacy — are equivalent. If a document is a FERPA record when a reporter wants it, then it’s a FERPA record when you want to see your own. That means every audiotape of every meeting you’ve spoken at, every parking ticket you’ve received, the scores of every sporting event you’ve played in, every e-mail that mentions your name, every videotape in which your face appears — everything.

That’s right, colleges, back up the dump truck, because you’re about to retrieve and produce every last drop of information you’ve been misclassifying as a “confidential education record” for years. And you’re going to do it — as FERPA requires — totally free of charge.

Or else, you’re going to admit you’ve been lying all along.

Here’s an easy way students can help finally bring sanity to FERPA:

Step 1: Fill out this request form and send it to your registrar, provost or comparable top academic official. It’s easy.

Step 2: Tell the SPLC what you receive and how long it takes. Federal law requires a complete response within at most 45 days. Compare the limited results you get against the everything’s-confidential stance that your college takes when it’s trying to keep secrets — and write about it.

Step 3: If you don’t promptly receive the truckload of records — if there are no emails, no audiotapes, no parking tickets — file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education and explain that you’ve been denied access to your FERPA records. Then let’s watch those colleges explain to the feds that emails, parking tickets and audiotapes aren’t FERPA records after all.

(And hey, you might surprise yourself and find out your college has been illegally giving out your records without you even knowing it happened.)

This project is fun, but there’s nothing funny about the cynical manipulation of the law by school lawyers when public safety is on the line. Serious hazards to the public are being concealed — criminals on the loose, inadequately trained teachers putting kids in wrestling holds — in the name of fabricated “privacy” concerns.

Your request letter can help put a stop to this. Let’s finish breaking FERPA. And then, let’s repair it.