Connecticut joins consensus that school security videos are not confidential FERPA records

An elementary-school principal is suspended from her job after accusations surface that she abused two kindergartners by dragging them down a hallway. When a reporter tries to review the most reliable evidence — footage from a surveillance camera — the school district claims that the video is a “confidential education record.”

That, of course, makes no sense — and now a state open-records panel has said so.

In an Oct. 22 ruling, the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission decided that reporter Linda Lambeck of the Connecticut Post newspaper could have access to videos of the dragging incidents. 

Complaints about mistreatment of the two children led Bridgeport’s Board of Education to suspend Principal Carmen Perez Dickson, who retired rather than accept a transfer to a desk job with the district. 

By the time Lambeck made her request under the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act, the videos were already in the hands of concerned parents and widely circulating around the district and online. 

But — in a refrain familiar to education reporters everywhere — the school district cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and denied the newspaper’s request.

FERPA is a narrow privacy statute that applies only to records that, as the Supreme Court clarified in 2002, are “kept by a single central custodian, such as a registrar” and that “directly” pertain to an individual student. 

School lawyers largely don’t — or won’t — understand this. The Connecticut FOI Commission did.

The Commission cited two reasons for refusing to classify the videos as confidential FERPA records. Both reasons are noteworthy because they add to the growing consensus that FERPA must be applied in a common-sense manner as its authors intended

First, the videos are blurry enough that the children in them can’t be readily identified. This is yet another rebuke to the U.S. Department of Education’s irrational view that a record even with identifying information removed can still be a FERPA record if the requester knows, or can figure out, to which student the record pertains. The Post obviously can figure out the identity of the dragged children, because at least one of the parents has come forward publicly and identified herself. Yet that, properly, did not factor into the Commission’s thinking.

Second, the Commission ruled, the videos “directly relate to the conduct of the school principal and not to the students who appear in them.” This is important. Schools and colleges frequently conceal information about misconduct accusations against their employees by mis-categorizing a complaint involving the mistreatment of students as a “student record,” an issue central to an ongoing complaint against the University of Iowa, which refuses to explain the removal of its women’s field-hockey coach.

The FOI Commission’s unanimous ruling brings Connecticut in line with New York and Louisiana, where judges likewise have refused to classify surveillance videos as FERPA records.

The school district could appeal the decision, but has given no indication it will do so.

Have you run into a questionable use of FERPA to deny a request for access to government records? Report it to FERPA Fact and we’ll see rate the accuracy of the agency’s claim on the Arne Meter.