The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, an administrative agency that enforces open record laws, unanimously decided on Feb. 13 that schools cannot withhold educator misconduct records on the grounds of protecting student privacy.
The ruling clarifies that public schools can’t withhold an entire employee misconduct document because it contains identifying information about a student — instead they must redact the private information and disclose the rest.
Christopher Peak, a New Haven Independent reporter filed the complaint to FOIC in November 2019. He said the decision is a breakthrough for journalists in the area — including student journalists.
“It really sends a message for journalists, whether they’re in school or out, that there needs to be accountability for law breaking that goes on inside a school,” Peak said. “Schools can no longer give the excuse that they’re protecting students, when really they’re just looking out for themselves.”
SPLC Staff Attorney Sommer Ingram Dean said schools often abuse the Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which is designed to protect students’ privacy. High schools and colleges have been known to “cry FERPA” for virtually any record they don’t want to release to the public, which leads to a lengthy and costly legal battle for the requester.
“Over the decades, schools have either purposely misused or just misunderstood how the law works and abused FERPA,” Dean said. “They use it as an excuse to not give journalists or members of the public information that makes the school look bad. That was never what FERPA was meant to do.”
It really sends a message for journalists, whether they’re in school or out, that there needs to be accountability for law breaking that goes on inside a school
The school leader at Achievement First Amistad High School, a charter school in New Haven, shoved a student into a corner in October 2018 and resigned over the incident the next year. But when Peak requested the principal’s misconduct records, the school refused to hand them over, saying he could use the records to figure out who the student involved was.
Achievement First will not appeal the FOIC decision, and will turn over the rest of the records “promptly,” Senior Director of Strategic Communications and Design Amanda Pinto said.
Dean said this case sets an important precedent for student journalists in the state. If schools continue to deny access to employee records because they involve students, journalists can use this case as a precedent for the right way to apply FERPA. Then, the school might hand over the records.
“I think the decision is great in that it reinforces that FERPA isn’t meant to cover up facts that the public has a right to know. I think it’s a great step in the right direction,” Dean said. “I hope other states will look to this decision and see the correct way to apply FERPA.”
Despite the ruling, there probably won’t be any student coverage of the shoving incident. Peak said the two faculty advisers to Amistad’s student newspaper, the Paw Print, were among a slew of teachers who quit following the shoving scandal. After they left, the newspaper died off, a student told Peak.
it reinforces that FERPA isn’t meant to cover up facts that the public has a right to know.
Connecticut courts have time and again sided with the public on open records complaints. In 2015, a high court decided teacher misconduct records are public. A judge said surveillance video of closed investigations are open record in a 2017 ruling. But if a requester is too heavy handed on FOIA requests, they can be denied records for up to a year, according to a 2018 ruling.
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