School records of settlements with parents are not completely protected under FERPA, Mass. high court rules

A Massachusetts school district that withheld records of the district’s settlements with parents of special-needs students must make the records accessible to the public, as long as personal identifying details are redacted, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The opinion by Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice Margot Botsford concludes parts of the settlement records containing student information are shielded from public access under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the federal student privacy law. But if the school district redacts the personal identifying details of students involved in the settlement documents, she ruled, it must release them to the public.

The high court vacated a state Superior Court ruling that nixed the school’s claim that the settlement records were private education records. The case grew out of a 2012 public records request by district resident Michael Champa, who requested access to Weston School District records from the previous five years detailing how the district settled claims with parents of special-needs children.

Although the Supreme Court ultimately reached the same general conclusion as the lower court — that the public has a right to know how public money is allocated toward education — it contended that the lower court’s interpretation was too narrow, although Botsford agreed with lower court judge Angel Kelley Brown that personal details should be redacted from the records.

Brown had ruled that the public-records exemption applied only to education records directly related to academic progress. But Botsford’s ruling found that the records fell within two exemptions to Massachusetts disclosure law, one for student records and one that protects private personal information.

“Notably, once personally identifiable information is redacted, the financial terms of such agreements, which necessarily reflect the use of public monies, partially or fully, to pay for out-of-district placements, do not constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy; indeed, the public has a right to know the financial terms of these agreements,” Botsford wrote.

The opinion also cited Massachusetts student-record law, which shields students’ “temporary records” — those that contain student information separate from the academic transcript but significant to the educational process. The ruling said the settlement records contained such information, but that the private details could be blacked out of the documents to make them accessible to the public.

“The record before us, limited as it is, indicates that an agreement is likely to contain information regarding a student’s disability, progress, and needs — information that is unquestionably of importance to the student’s ‘educational process,’” Botsford wrote. “However, like FERPA, the Massachusetts student records law and regulations protect student records only as they pertain to certain information — not entire documents.”

For more on FERPA and public records, check out the Student Press Law Center’s legal white paper. The SPLC also debunks improper uses of FERPA exemptions on our FERPA Fact blog.