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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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Student law group using FERPA to show privacy law is broken

Frank LoMonte wants college students to help him "break" the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

And the tool he’s chosen for the job? FERPA itself.

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"The idea is to take FERPA, which has been used as a shield, and turn it around and use it as a sword," said LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.

The campaign involves getting college students to write their respective schools and request copies of their FERPA records, which the school, by law, must provide within 45 days. And then the students are to report back on which records they were given. The law center has set up a website with a letter generator to help students make the requests.

LoMonte said FERPA is designed to not only shield student records from public scrutiny, but to make them available to students or their families on request.

The point of the exercise, LoMonte says, is to show that FERPA is used to hold back records that are not educational.

According to the Student Press Law Center, FERPA has been cited to withhold non-educational documents such as the names of student government members and campus police reports. When a former Southeast Missouri State University student was arrested in a plot to blow up the Federal Reserve in New York, the school’s president refused to comment, citing FERPA, and even claimed that the university in Bangladesh where the student first attended shouldn’t have revealed information because it violated the U.S. privacy law.

Here in Utah, the Granite School District attempted to shield records of its investigation into allegations that a former football coach had an "inappropriate relationship" with a student by citing FERPA. That claim was rejected by the State Records Committee, which ordered the district to release all but one of the student reports to The Salt Lake Tribune.

If school administrators are correct, LoMonte said students should receive truckloads of papers, audio recordings, video recordings and computer data that has the student’s name anywhere listed on it. More likely, LoMonte said students will just get copies of their college applications and transcripts, which is what FERPA was originally intended to protect.

While the campaign has a light element to it, LoMonte is hoping that it will show lawmakers that FERPA is being misinterpreted, and that they will fix the law to do what it was intended to do, and not be a black hole into which records can be stashed to keep them away from the public.

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

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