Ohio schools withhold gun statistics, citing FERPA privacy

The public can’t find out how many times students are caught bringing guns into Ohio schools, or how those incidents are punished, because the Ohio Department of Education claims FERPA requires withholding those statistics, the Columbus Dispatch reported Dec. 10. According to the Dispatch, the Ohio DOE insists that reporting the number of gun-discipline cases and the outcomes of those cases could point to the identity of the disciplined individual if the district has fewer than 10 such cases. All but one district in Ohio had fewer than 10 cases last year, so the information from every other district was kept off-limits to the public. 

Former Executive Director Frank LoMonte: The holidays are time for fun, so let’s play a fun game. We’ll call it “Find the Privacy Violation.”

So, let’s say little Riley Remington goes to school in Johnson County, Ohio. One day, he gets caught bringing his dad’s .38 into school, an event that makes local headlines. At the end of the year, the Johnson County School District releases its crime statistics, and reports that three kids brought guns to school last year.

“Hmm,” you think, “having read about Riley’s case in the local newspaper, I bet one of those three must have been Riley.”

See the privacy violation yet?

Right, me neither.

Just releasing the number of gun cases tells the public nothing about Riley. Either you already know Riley had a gun or you don’t. The statistic contains no confidential information.

So the Ohio Department of Education is simply wrong that releasing a numerical count of gun cases – no matter how small the pool of cases is – violates anyone’s privacy rights.

Don’t just take our word for it. Numerical data about guns in schools – and drugs and vandalism and gambling and all other sorts of disciplinary transgressions – has been routinely released by states for many years. Here’s last year’s report from the Virginia Department of Education. It shows in microscopic detail every infraction, by district, for offenses from arson (93 cases statewide) to sexual assault (one).

Both of these states can’t be right. Either the data is protected by FERPA – in which case the U.S. Department of Education will be showing up in Virginia any day with a repo man and a flatbed truck to start dismantling the public school system and carting the bricks back to Washington (totally not happening) – or it’s not, in which case it’s a matter of public record that must be disclosed under Ohio law.

 But wait, there’s a bonus round to this game!

The statistics won’t just say that three people brought guns to Johnson County schools. They’ll say three people were expelled for bringing guns to school.

Have we found that violation of Riley’s privacy yet?

Well, a federal statute – the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 – specifically requires a minimum one-year expulsion as the penalty for being caught with a gun at school. So the moment a newspaper reader learns that Riley brought a gun to school, she already knows that Riley got expelled.

So even if that statistic of three expulsions somehow confirms that Riley was one of the three – and remember, it doesn’t – that knowledge doesn’t give away anything confidential.

So, game over, right?

If only.

Even though anyone with the common sense of the average household hamster recognizes that no privacy violation has occurred, we’re unfortunately not dealing with hamsters. We’re dealing with U.S. Department of Education bureaucrats, who – if they actually were hamsters – would starve to death within days, unable to find the “off” switch to the spinning wheel.

The Department of Ed has given schools such befuddling instructions on how to respond to requests for statistical data that it’s essentially impossible to know whether you’ll be regarded as violating FERPA until after you do. 

Fortunately, the courts have been more sensible. For instance, in 2007 the Montana Supreme Court ordered a school board to release records reflecting the punishment imposed on two students caught shooting their classmates with pellet guns, with only the students’ names removed: “Since FERPA does not prohibit disclosure of records that do not reveal personally identifying information, there is no basis under FERPA for the Board’s refusal to release the public documents(.)”

If you can legally tell the public what penalty two kids got for shooting fake guns, then it’s probably okay to tell the public what penalty kids get when they shoot real ones. Just sayin’. 

It’s a little unsettling that the State of Ohio doesn’t think it’s important for parents to know about guns in their local schools if the number of incidents is less than 10. If you’re the kid whose school had nine gunmen in it, I guarantee that’s a noticeable amount. 

The United States Congress, the same people who enacted FERPA, certainly thought that this was important information for the public to know. The Gun-Free Schools Act requires every school district to report to the state annually on how many students were expelled for firearms, a report that each state must then submit to the federal Department of Education.

It’s possible that Congress required these government agencies to collect all that data purely for personal amusement (“Hey Charlie, get a load of this, Johnson County had eight shooters last year – okey-dokey, now bring me the shredder”). But probably not.

In fact, the U.S. DOE has itself released the exact information that Ohio claims the DOE forbids releasing.

Take a look at this federal audit report, which (see p.2) discloses that Wisconsin’s West Allis School District had one firearm expulsion, the Verona School District had one firearm expulsion, and so on. If the DOE really thinks it’s a punishable FERPA violation to disclose disciplinary statistics involving small numbers of violators, shouldn’t the Department stop doing it?

(Wait, we just thought of something. Since the U.S. DOE has released district-level gun statistics, and since the penalty for violating FERPA is that the DOE declares you ineligible to receive federal education funding… could the DOE just de-fund itself and instantaneously go out of business? Awe-some!) 

Since nothing about the disclosure of gun-expulsion statistics compromises any student’s privacy, the public’s interest in safe and accountable schools is being outweighed by … nothing.

Because Ohio may have been misled by “guidance” from the U.S. Department of Brain-Injured Hamsters Education – and heck, because it’s the holiday season – we’re going to give the state a generously curved grade of “just barely passing the straight-face test.” You’re welcome.  

We rate this: a questionable use of FERPA