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Wednesday, March 31, 2010
FOI Toolbox

SPJ's Reporter's Guide to FERPA

By Carolyn S. Carlson

From elementary schools to universities, some administrators are gleefully jumping on the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, known as FERPA, as an excuse to keep secret just about anything anyone wants to know about their schools.

Don’t put up with it. Educate yourself about school records through SPJ’s new “Reporter’s Guide to FERPA.” Also see the September/October 2009 Quill, with a cover story on the issue.

When Congress first passed it in 1974, FERPA was not intended to be the universal excuse for keeping public information from the public. Excessive secrecy has been gradually building until it has become something of an epidemic.

The original purpose of FERPA was to give students control over who, besides teachers and administrators, could have access to their grades and financial aid information. Schools are prohibited from releasing “education records” to anyone not authorized by law or by the students to look at them, under threat of losing federal funding.

The problem is that schools have gotten extraordinarily liberal in their interpretation of the definition of “education records,” deciding that FERPA applies to documents that could not conceivably be covered by the definition of “education records” issued by the U.S. Department of Education.

SPJ Freedom of Information Committee member David Chartrand, a syndicated columnist and a writer on education issues, has been denied such things as a school lunch menu and a high school graduation program, with FERPA being cited as the excuse for the denial.

At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the school newspaper was denied records from a public meeting because some people speaking at the meeting were students. The misguided thinking was that the school couldn’t, under FERPA, issue records that personally identified the students, even though they had spoken in public at a public meeting.

These and many more examples of absurd uses of FERPA to deny the media and the public access to public records are outlined in SPJ’s new FERPA guide. Here is what you’ll find:

1. An introduction by FOI Committee member Sonny Albarado, the Region 12 director of SPJ and a projects editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He relates the results of a Democrat-Gazette FERPA entanglement.

2. An explanation of the law prepared by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and updated by Jodi Cleesattle, a deputy attorney general in the California Department of Justice and an SPJ FOI Committee member.

3. A useful “how-to” article with contact information for anyone running into difficulty with school officials citing FERPA unnecessarily. It also includes links to great stories written about FERPA and projects illustrating the problems of excessive secrecy.

4. A top-10 list of story suggestions for education records you can obtain despite FERPA, provided by Charles Davis, former chairman of the SPJ FOI Committee and the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

5. Entertaining anecdotes about various FERPA/media confrontations in recent years, written by humor writer Chartrand. Also included is a reprint of Chartrand’s hilarious “Murphy’s Law” poster.

We hope the material will be sufficient to give you an overview of the issue and will encourage you to investigate further and perhaps write your own stories about the FERPA problem.

Carolyn S. Carlson is a past national president of SPJ and is an assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University. She is a member of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee.

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