School bus videos are public records, Pennsylvania court rules

Security footage filmed on school buses is a public record, a Pennsylvania court ruled this week, reaffirming the state’s stance on the relationship between its open records laws and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

In February 2016, a reporter with the local Fox affiliate requested that the Central Dauphin School District provide her with a copy of security video captured by a school bus camera system. The footage showed an alleged altercation between a 17-year-old student and the wife of Central Dauphin East High School’s principal. At the time, the school denied the reporter’s request, saying that FERPA exempted the video from the state’s Right-to-Know Law.

The state’s Office of Open Records, however, ordered the district to release the video, noting that “just because a record involves a student does not automatically invoke the confidentiality provisions” of FERPA. “While this video purportedly depicts the individual student, there is no evidence that this video is part of the student’s permanent academic file,” Charles Rees Brown, the office’s chief counsel, wrote in the opinion.

The school had also argued that the video was exempt because it was related to a noncriminal investigation. Brown dismissed this argument as well, writing that there was “no evidence that the video exists for reasons other than to document the behavior of students and others aboard school buses.”

This office’s 2016 ruling was a reversal of the state’s earlier position, which held that school bus videos were indeed protected by FERPA. In 2011, the office sided with the Bangor Area School District in a similar case, blocking a man from obtaining videos related to bullying on his daughter’s bus. Erik Arneson, executive director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, told the Morning Call last year that the change was the result of the office taking “a deeper look” at the state’s Right-to-Know Law and FERPA.

The Central Dauphin School District disagreed with the ruling and appealed the decision in June 2016. On Tuesday, the Dauphin County Court ruled against the school, largely agreeing with the Office of Open Records’ interpretation.

In his opinion, Judge William Tully reiterated the office’s explanation, as well as clarifying that the school bus security footage is — if not routinely deleted — maintained by the state’s Department of Transportation, further differentiating the video from educational records, which would be typically maintained by an educational institution.

Student faces must be blurred or redacted, the court said, but the footage is otherwise not protected and can be released.

“This court finds that the district has failed to meet its burden in proving by a preponderance of evidence that school bus video is exempt from disclosure under FERPA,” Tully wrote.