Wisconsin-Milwaukee student sues school, alleging public records violations

WISCONSIN — A University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student is suing the university, alleging it failed to comply with the state’s public records law when it cited inordinately high labor costs and withheld documents relating to a university employee who is also a student.

When Taylor Scott requested access to and copies of Pahoua Xiong’s emails, public records custodian Amy Watson cited FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which is a federal law designed to protect students’ educational records.

Scott’s attorney April Barker wrote in the complaint, filed Monday, that FERPA “does not apply to the disclosure of the requested records because they are not education records of Pahoua Xiong within the meaning of that law.”

Xiong was the “investigating officer” in a misconduct case earlier this year, determining whether Scott was disrespectful to a bus driver. The charges were eventually dismissed.

Scott said he thinks the misconduct investigation was a set-up. He’s been trying to expose “systematic issues” in UWM’s Student Affairs process after the school overturned student government elections earlier this year.

Scott said he and other former members of student government were given warrantless charges. But being found responsible could have barred them from holding office in student government again.

“Basically they don’t want to give us a platform again to call them out on their actions,” Scott said. In July, he requested emails from Xiong and other administrators that mentioned him or the incident.

Besides denying access to Xiong’s emails, the school requested hundreds of dollars to find emails sent by administrators.

“We have learned from previous requests that the email search function is not exact,” Watson wrote in her response. “Thus, this request will involve a locating fee.”

Barker alleged in the complaint that the labor costs were “excessive and unreasonable and exceed the amounts that may permissibly be charged for records requests” under the law.

UWM spokesman Tom Luljak declined to comment, saying the school had not yet received the lawsuit.

Barker said she expects UWM will be served the summons within the next week, at which point the school will have 45 days to respond.

“We will obviously be attempting to serve it as quickly as possible,” she said.

In 2009, The UWM Post obtained a favorable settlement in a similar lawsuit against the university, after UWM erroneously used FERPA to withhold recordings of public meetings of a campus committee.

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