Ohio Supreme Court rules against school district in FERPA records lawsuit

OHIO — A public school district cannot rely on the FERPA privacy statute to selectively withhold basic demographic information about students from certain unwanted requesters, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled.

A nonprofit organization, School Choice Ohio, alleged the Springfield City School District was using its records policy to deny the release of information to organizations it opposes.

School Choice Ohio filed a public records request in 2014 for student names, addresses and other contact information. The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act requires districts to keep students’ “education records” confidential, but it expressly exempts harmless “directory information” of the type that School Choice Ohio requested.

The district released names and address, but denied any other information, claiming it wasn’t a matter of public record and citing FERPA.

“We felt it was important to take on the time and cost of this case because we believed families were being denied potentially life-changing information,” said Kaleigh Lemaster, executive director of School Choice Ohio.

The organization annually requests directory information from school districts to conduct outreach to families who could be eligible for school choice programs such as scholarships or other benefits. The information could also be used to help families pick a school they felt suited their children best.

Having information on schools could also help families potentially avoid underperforming schools. Springfield City School District ranks 692 out of 881 school districts in Ohio, according to the state Department of Education.

Additionally, the district has several schools on the Focus list and one on the Priority list. Focus list schools have high achievement and graduation deficiencies and fail to decrease the deficiencies over a number of years. Priority list schools have low graduation rates and poor performance in reading and math.

“We think parents know their children best and are best suited to make these decisions,” Lemaster said.

However, administrators thought the outreach done by the organization could be misleading.

The district has had its current student privacy policy since 2013, declining to use the federal “directory information” phrase and instead sending a consent form to parents to release information, according to the Springfield News-Sun. The superintendent could then use discretion to decide whether the information could be released to each requesting organization.

Kim Fish, the district spokesperson, who did not respond to SPLC’s requests for comment, told the Springfield News-Sun that the district adopted the policy to protect children’s privacy and to withhold information from organizations that might use it in a misleading way.

“The Board of Education adopted our current student privacy policy with the primary goal of giving parents more options in protecting their child’s information and to protect students and families from receiving false and misleading information,” Fish told the local news outlet.

The court ruled that the information requested by School Choice Ohio fell within the boundaries of the consent form and the release would not violate FERPA. Because Ohio law requires the production of public records unless forbidden by federal law, and because disclosure of directory information is expressly allowed under FERPA, the district was required to produce the requested documents, Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger wrote in the Court’s July 21 ruling.

“I think one thing this ruling makes very clear is that if a district can provide directory information under FERPA, it must,” Lemaster said.

The court did not, however, rule that the district must change its student privacy policies as the organization requested. The district will still be able to require parental consent to release information, but the superintendent will no longer have the control he once did to decide what organizations to which that information will be released.

Once the district has parental consent for disclosure, they must release the information if it is requested.

“This is a major victory for families who could have not had this information because of the abuse of power of a superintendent,” Lemaster said.

The case is State ex rel. School Choice Ohio, Inc. v. Cincinnati Pub. School Dist.

SPLC staff writer Evelyn Andrews can be reached by email or (202) 974-6317

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