Federal District Court Case Further Clouds Issue of When Student Names May Be Redacted from Disclosed Documents
In a world where few disputes of this nature find their way into federal district court, every published decision on the issue of what constitutes an “educational record” for purposes of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA, sometimes known as the “Buckley Amendment”) receives a great deal of scrutiny from those in the field of education. In Wallace v. Cranbrook Educational Community, 106 LRP 57872, 2006 WL 2796135 (E.D. Mich. 2006), the Eastern District of Michigan issued an opinion that would appear to cloud even further the issue of when student names may legitimately be redacted from documents disclosed to outside third parties in order to protect student confidentiality under FERPA.
The plaintiff, Delvren Wallace, was an employee of the defendant Cranbrook Educational Community, serving in the capacity of a maintenance/equipment mover, when he was discharged for alleged improper sexual behavior toward students. The termination was justified in part by student statements which were redacted to remove the names and other personally identifiable information from the statements.
In the lawsuit, the ex-employee tried to obtain unredacted copies of the statements in order to identify the students in question and, presumably, to question them and determine the varacity of their statements. The school refused to disclose the unredacted statements, seeking to keep the names of the students and other personal information about the students and incidents from being disclosed to the ex-employee.
The court ordered the disclosure of the unredacted statements showing the names and other personally identifiable information, on the grounds that the records requested, statements made by students to support a sexual harassment investigation involving an employee of the school, were not “educational records” for purposes of FERPA because they did not “directly relate” to the students, and were therefore not subject to the protections of that statute. Citing with approval another district court decision, the court opined that in formulating FERPA’s protections, Congress did not intend to protect from disclosure records that were “directly related” to employees and only “tangentially related” to students, such as these statements.
Where does this leave us in the event of a similar request for unredacted copies of student statements in a similar situation here in Connecticut? As a Michigan federal district court opinion, the decision is not binding on courts here in Connecticut, but it may be cited as persuasive authority on the interpretation of FERPA.
That said, since FERPA threatens to deprive school districts of federal funding if they have a “policy” of disclosing personally identifiable information regarding students, most school districts will probably want to continue to adhere to a policy of strict non-disclosure of such information, unless and until disclosure is ordered by a court in a particular instance. The case does provide a potential “safe haven” for the district that neglects to redact the names of students from statements in similar instances by offering the explanation that since the records in question were not “educational records”, redacting the names of the students was not necessary. When in doubt, however, redaction is probably the safer course of action.
Questions about this story or any other issue? Contact Attorney Michelle Laubin at [email protected]