Utah SPJ chapter files brief opposing school district's use of FERPA

UTAH — Copies of footage from surveillance cameras are not confidential educational records, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Utah chapter says. Canyons School District didn’t agree, but the SPJ hopes the Utah Court of Appeals will.

Last week, the Utah Headliners filed an amicus brief with the court, seeking to prevent what it says could be a wrongful expansion of FERPA privacy. FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, is a federal law designed to protect students’ educational records.

The plaintiff, Roger Bryner, requested copies of surveillance footage under Utah’s open records law to see if the footage showed his son in a fight with another student. When his request was denied under FERPA, he filed a complaint in district court and lost.

The school district maintains the footage is protected because it is maintained by the district and identifies the students. The Utah Headliners argue the footage is not maintained by an educational institution and is not, in fact, an educational record at all.

“A surveillance recording is used to maintain the physical security and safety of an educational institution,” attorney David Reymann wrote in the SPJ chapter’s amicus brief. “It is akin to a law enforcement record, which is expressly excluded from the definition of ‘education record’ under FERPA.”

School district spokeswoman Jennifer Toomer-Cook declined to comment, but shared the district’s public statement in an email: “We reaffirm our position that school security footage is protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.”

The district offered to provide redacted footage to Bryner for $120, but he appealed instead. In October, the court requested that the Utah Headliners file an amicus brief “on the issue of whether a surveillance recording taken by a security camera in a school is an educational record subject to protection from disclosure.”

Utah Headliners president Sheryl Worsley said a ruling rendering surveillance footage private would make it harder to hold public schools transparent and accountable.

“The public is interested in the safety of a student,” she said. “There is a high public interest in keeping that open.”

The SPJ is unaware of court cases that established surveillance footage to be an educational record, the brief noted. In 2005, a New York parent won access to similar footage in Rome School District v. Grifasi. A 2007 case in Washington state also held that camera footage was public record.

“If a surveillance recording is held to be an education record merely because it contains identifiable images of students, so might a videotaped recording of a school play, or footage of a football game, or a byline picture in the school newspaper, or even a yearbook photograph,” Reymann wrote.

By Samantha Sunne, SPLC staff writer. Contact Sunne by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 123.