How bullies get punished isn’t the public’s business: School districts pretty much everywhere

A viral social-media image shows how bullies in a Nebraska high school crammed a 16-year-old hearing-impaired classmate’s books into the toilet, a despicable act that provoked an outpouring of crowd-funded financial support to replace the teen’s damaged property. The Omaha Public School District confirms that multiple students were punished for the attack – but won’t say how many or what punishment they received, “due to student privacy laws.”

Source: “Students involved in Burke High incident have been disciplined, district says,”, Sept. 6, 2016

Former SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte: It’s time for a little feature we just made up at FERPA Fact, “Science Corner,” and in today’s Science Corner, it’s just been conclusively established by researchers with way too much time on their hands that Queen’s 1977 anthem, “We Are The Champions,” is the catchiest song ever recorded. And by “catchy,” we mean “song that will replay nightmarishly in your head until you wish for the sweet release of death.” 

If you are an education reporter (or a lawyer who represents them), the earworm you can’t shake is this refrain that’s heavy on the playlist of every school district in America: “We can’t tell you how we disciplined whoever it is we disciplined – and we’re not saying it is a person as opposed to, say, a large pile of mashed potatoes in the shape of a teenager — because FERPA.”

So here’s the crazy thing. If the Omaha Public School District were actually right (hey, it could happen – you throw FERPA around enough, you’re bound to hit something) that commenting on the disciplinary status of unnamed students is a FERPA violation, then they’ve violated FERPA already. Because they confirmed that discipline was imposed.

You couldn’t issue a press release saying, “Davey Walker was issued a disciplinary penalty that we won’t identify,” because that’d be just as much of a privacy violation as saying “Davey Walker got a 10-day suspension.” 

The Omaha Public School District knows this, and they know the converse is also true: That if it’s legal to say “we disciplined several students for bullying” – as they did – then it is equally legal to say “we suspended them for 10 days.” And it’s not only legal, it’s right; the public has a right to know whether attacks on students are adequately and fairly punished. 

Specifying the discipline imposed on unidentified students does not violate federal privacy law. There are only two types of people in the audience: (1) people who’ll already know that Davey has been gone for 10 days – not because of the school’s announcement, but because they’re in the school with Davey’s empty chair, and they know roughly how many fingers they have – or (2) people who have no idea who Davey is, and won’t be able to figure it out based on the school saying “we suspended a kid for 10 days.” So nothing private is being given away by informing the public of the measure of punishment. The school can say more. And it should.

♪♬ No time for FERPA, ‘cause we want the answer… ♪♬

Now that’ll be stuck in your head all day. You’re welcome.

We rate this: A questionable use of FERPA