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Court News Ohio

Springfield Schools Must Release Student Data as Public Records

Springfield City Schools must release student contact information requested by School Choice, a private non-profit organization whose mission is to inform students and parents about educational options, as long as parents have consented to making the information available, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

Neither federal nor state law restricts release of Springfield student “directory information” for the 2013-2014 school year, the Court ruled.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger ruled that Springfield must provide School Choice the records that fall within any of the nine categories of student information listed in the school district’s consent form for those students whose parents had signed the form.

Information Requested by School Choice
During the 2012-2013 school year School Choice made a public records request to Springfield for student and parent names, parent addresses and email addresses, parent telephone numbers, and student grade levels. Springfield provided only student names and addresses, stating that the remaining data was not directory information subject to release.

For the next school year Springfield changed its policy on releasing student information. While designating the same nine categories for release, the district no longer called the information “directory information” and limited its release to certain approved purposes.

Springfield provided a form for parents to give written request to release “personally identifiable information” to apply continuously until a parent withdrew consent. The form approved release of the information for school-related events and for “educational, health, service or other non-profit programs which may provide a benefit to the students of the district” directed by “community leaders, community organizations, and school-related organizations” approved as “partnering organizations” by the superintendent.

Records Request Rejected Under New Policy
In October 2013, School Choice filed a nearly identical public records request with Springfield as it did the year before. The request was eventually denied. But the district had released personally identifiable student information during that school year to several organizations, including Clark State Community College, Springfield Christian Youth Ministries, and the Clark County Combined Health District.

In May 2014, School Choice sought a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court compelling Springfield to release requested student directory information for the 2013-2014 school year and to amend its student data policy.

Federal Law Does Not Prohibit Release of Student Data
The Court stated that student data maintained by Springfield are public records unless they fall under one of the exemptions in Ohio’s public records act, R.C. 149.43. The school district claimed that students’ personally identifiable information are “records the release of which is prohibited by state or federal law” under R.C. 149.43(A)(1)(v). The district asserted that both the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and R.C. 3319.321, the state privacy act, prohibit the release of the student information.

Justice Lanzinger noted while FERPA broadly prohibits the release of education records, an exception in the statute allows a school district to adopt a policy to release “directory information” without prior parental consent. Directory information covers several categories, including the nine maintained by Springfield, and Springfield is unable to exempt it by changing the name. Student information can be released if the district announces the types of data it wants to release, gives notice of the information intended to be released without prior parental consent, and gives parents the right to opt out of the process.

FERPA Allows Parental Notice to Guide Release of Student Data
Although FERPA designates what information can be released without parental consent, Justice Lanzinger explained the federal law is “silent regarding the parties who are eligible to receive the information.” A federal regulation, 34. CFR 99.1, permits a school to specify in its public notice to parents that disclosure of directory information will be limited to specific parties, for specific purposes, or both. When a school does make such limitations in its public notice, disclosure outside those categories would violate federal law.

The Court concluded that School Choice, a nonprofit organization which informs Ohio parents of educational opportunities, fits within the limited category of Springfield’s consent form for educational, health, service, or other non-profit programs that may provide a benefit to the district’s students. As a result, “FERPA would not prohibit Springfield’s release of student-directory information to School Choice,” Justice Lanzinger wrote.

Springfield argued that if its superintendent did not want to partner with a group or approve a particular purpose, disclosure in that case would violate FERPA. The Court disagreed, ruling that if the parental consent form identifies a category of purposes or parties who may receive student information, it does not violate FERPA to release it for any request fitting in that category.

“Because School Choice fits within limitations specified in Springfield’s consent form and because the superintendent cannot create FERPA prohibitions by making post-consent discretionary decisions, disclosure of Springfield’s student directory information to School Choice would not be prohibited by FERPA,” Justice Lanzinger wrote.

State Law Does Not Block Release
Springfield also argued that the release to School Choice is prohibited by R.C. 3319.321, the state student privacy act. Justice Lanzinger explained the law was adopted to bring Ohio into compliance with FERPA, and impliedly adopts the federal law’s directory-information provisions. The Court concluded that state law did not prohibit release, and therefore School Choice was entitled to obtain the information as a public record.

Release to Other Groups Not a Factor
School Choice had argued it was entitled to the records even if the public records law did not apply because the district gave the information to other organizations. Under R.C. 3319.321(B)(2)(a), any restriction a school places on release of directory information to “representatives of the armed forces, business, industry, charitable institutions, other employers, and institutions of higher education” must be uniformly imposed on all of the groups.

Justice Lanzinger explained that this statute applies to entities seeking to employ students and to higher education institutions rather than to every nonprofit seeking the information. School Choice promotes kindergarten through twelfth-grade education and does not fit into the category governed by the state law.

Since School Choice qualified to receive the information as a public record, the Court declined the nonprofit’s request that Springfield change its directory-information policy. In granting the writ of mandamus in part, the Court also awarded School Choice $1,000 in damages, plus its court costs and attorney fees.

Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Sharon L. Kennedy, and William M. O’Neill joined Justice Lanzinger’s majority opinion.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor concurred in part and dissented in part, indicating she would not award attorney fees.

Concurring Justice Found Superintendent Abused Discretion
In a concurring opinion, Justice Terrence O’Donnell concluded that the superintendent abused his discretion in denying School Choice the records.

He wrote the superintendent had no rational basis for treating School Choice differently from other organizations that received the student information and when the superintendent did release the data to other groups, the district waived its right to claim an exemption from the public records act.

Justice Judith L. French concurred in Justice O’Donnell’s opinion.

2014-0749. State ex rel. School Choice Ohio, Inc. v. Cincinnati Public School District Et Al., Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-5026.

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