New federal rules make school records more secret

The U.S. Department of Education released new rules last week regarding education records that would allow schools to keep records secret, even with all identifiers removed, if they think that someone in the school could figure out who the record pertains to.

This is not good. The rule change that interprets the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) goes into effect Jan. 8. It’s being hurried into place before Bush leaves office, enabling schools and universities to hide information regardless of its public importance.

SPJ and other groups opposed the proposed rule change earlier this year but DOE didn’t address our concerns. The department’s logic completely disregards the public’s interest in needing to know about dangers on campuses. For example, if a student is disciplined for bringing a gun to school, the school would not have to confirm or deny whether the student was punished because someone might be able to figure out who the student is. In another example, provided by DOE, if star athletes at a university fail drug tests and a newspaper writes about it, no records have to be provided because people would be able to figure out who the student is based on the news coverage. In other words, if the information is of such public interest that people would be talking about it, then it can be kept secret. That flies in the face of the basic FOI principle that information that is of great public importance should be open because it overrides privacy interests of individuals. DOE says otherwise – that all information should be secret to protect privacy no matter how important it is to the public.

This is not what Congress intended for FERPA and it appears someone will have to sue to overturn these rules. See an analysis by Frank LaMonte of the Student Press Law Center and the actual rules.

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