Underground FERPA activism campaign sees mixed results

CALIFORNIA— Students at one of the nation’s largest private universities are using a little-known tactic as a method of protesting unpopular decisions by university administrators: FERPA requests.

The Fountain Hopper, an anonymous newsletter run by students at Stanford University, has encouraged the use of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to ensure that the university hears student complaints.

Stanford has been under fire in recent months for its handling of sexual assault reports as well as suspending the activity of the school marching band. Since then, a Fountain Hopper staffer says at least 200 people have used a custom form on their website to send FERPA requests to the university for actual records, but also as a forum for their concerns.

While best-known as a privacy statute, FERPA also contains a lesser-known right of access entitling students (or in the case of minors, their parents) to inspect and correct any of their “education records” maintained by schools or colleges.

Brad Hayward, senior director of communications at Stanford, confirmed in an email that the university received roughly 170 FERPA requests as a result of the Fountain Hopper campaign.

Each student who submitted a request received a response from university registrar Thomas C. Black saying that Stanford considered the template-based requests “a misuse of FERPA.”

“This law is intended to allow students access to their education records; it is not a mechanism for protest,” Black wrote.

In Black’s response, students were told to email a separate address within 10 business days if they wished to discuss their request further, but that it would otherwise be withdrawn.

With the volume of responses, Hayward said the university is in the process of seeking guidance from the Family Policy Compliance Office— the office that administers FERPA — on how to appropriately respond to the requests. He said they have not yet received a response from the FPCO.

After reaching out to Department of Education officials to clarify the legality of the requests, a press officer directed the SPLC to a Frequently Asked Questions section on the FPCO website. The page does not explicitly define how universities should respond to requests that do not only ask for educational records.

FERPA does not directly relate to the marching band or the controversy accompanying it, which pertains to Title IX violations, hazing incidents, and a lack of organizational conduct. In December, Stanford officials announced the Band would be suspended through the spring quarter of 2017 in order to “develop a new organizational framework under the leadership of a new music director.” The decision received mixed reviews, with some ardently defending the Band’s continued participation, and others defending the actions of the university.

But the Fountain Hopper has been urging students to use FERPA requests as a vehicle for getting their messages of displeasure in front of top Stanford administrators, because FERPA carries the potential of serious federal penalties for noncompliance and requests will get prompt attention from authorities.

In a statement on the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band Facebook page, the band discouraged students from using FERPA requests to voice concerns to the university.

“One of the ways you can help us ensure this is to not request, on the behalf of the Band, the documents pertaining to your activity on campus under FERPA and to withdraw your request if you have already done so,” the statement reads in part. “We appreciate your want to support us but at this point, we feel that your FERPA request would do more harm, to Student/Administration relations, than good.”

A Band public relations official told the SPLC they felt the FERPA campaign was demonstrative of the relationship between students and administrators at the university, and it was the only way for some students to feel their concerns were being heard.

“Many students, however, feel so unheard and unconsidered they believe FERPA is the only way they can have a voice in influencing campus policies,” they said. “The administration is taking the FERPA requests seriously, but I highly doubt it will lead to any meaningful change in how the administration and students relate to each other – a relationship I see only growing increasingly tense and unproductive.”

The Fountain Hopper campaign is not the first time the publication has initiated a wide use of FERPA. In 2015, it generated hundreds of responses after encouraging students to use FERPA to obtain admissions records which were previously thought to be confidential.

SPLC staff writer Conner Mitchell can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318

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