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Utah's Right to Know
Donald Meyers
Donald W. Meyers writes about open-government issues for The Salt Lake Tribune. He is also the site manager of utahsright.com, the Tribune's online database of public records. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists' National Freedom of Information Committee and sits on the board of directors of the Utah Foundation for Open Government.

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FERPA not meant to hide investigations from public

A law that was meant to protect students’ grades from prying eyes is becoming an invisibility cloak Harry Potter would envy.

The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, also known as FERPA, was originally intended to ensure only parents and students had access to academic records, such as report cards and transcripts. But in recent years, FERPA has been used to shield documents that would ordinarily be public, such as parking tickets issued to student athletes, meeting minutes, investigations into academic dishonesty in collegiate athletics, and settlements of lawsuits against school districts.

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All one has to do to invoke the magic cloak is to put a student’s name on a document, and it suddenly becomes a protected document, with school officials warning that the document’s release would cost the institution all its federal funding.

FERPA was invoked during a recent State Records Committee hearing, when the Granite School District attempted to use it to keep The Salt Lake Tribune from obtaining records about teacher misconduct. Reporter Bill Oram had filed a Government Records Access and Management Act request for documents related to the district’s investigation of Cottonwood High head football coach Josh Lyman.

Lyman was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a female student. The district ended its investigation in May when Lyman resigned, and did not produce a final report.

But Doug Larson, the district’s policy and legal services director, said the investigative records, which included written reports district officials compelled students to produce, were protected by FERPA.

Larson explained to the committee that investigative records produced by police — and Granite has its own police force — and turned over to school administrators turn into educational records protected by FERPA. And any records the district sends to police remain educational records.

It’s an argument that Frank LoMonte doesn’t buy. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said in a phone interview that FERPA specifically excludes records maintained by a campus police unit and crime records from privacy protection.

"You can’t have a rule that magically turns a [crime report] into an academic record," LoMonte said.

The records committee didn’t accept Larson’s interpretation of FERPA either. The committee ruled earlier this month that the education law did not apply in the case. It also ordered all but one of the reports to be released to Salt Lake Tribune reporter Bill Oram, along with a log of the text messages between Lyman and the student.



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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