Fighting FERPA with facts
by Mark Goodman
As noted in the JEA SPRC blog in September, the Student Press Law Center is taking on schools that misuse FERPA in a new and powerful way. Scholastic journalists can get in on the action.
FERPA stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It’s the federal law enacted in 1974 to regulate the release by educational institutions of student “education records.” FERPA sought to put an end to schools releasing student grades and other academic records without the student’s permission (or the permission of parents if the student is a minor). It also sought to ensure that students (and parents) had a right to see their own records maintained by the school. The penalty for non-compliance with FERPA is the risk of loss of federal funding.
But as many student journalists and advisers know, FERPA has become a monster, something much bigger than what its legislative sponsors ever intended. Over the years, schools have learned they can use the law as justification for refusing to provide all sorts of information they might rather not reach the media or the public.
From crime reports about college athletes to the signers of petitions submitted to a public school board, schools across the nation have used FERPA as the perfect excuse for denying information to the public.
The SPLC and advocates for open government are now saying, “no more.” Their FERPA Fact website chronicles the growing number of misuses of FERPA made by schools and exposes those that are inaccurate interpretations of the law. The site is a great source of story ideas for scholastic journalists.
It also is a good reminder to high school reporters and editors not to presume every time FERPA gets thrown in their face, the justification is a valid one.
If FERPA has been used as a justification for denying your staff records maintained by your school, submit your story for a FERPA Fact “fact checking.” You might get the arguments you need to counter your school’s denial.