Schools and colleges often invoke the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to hide embarrassing information or blatant wrongdoing, claiming they’ll get sued if they turn over information relating to students that has nothing to do with their academic records.
Courts have started to knock down these self-serving rationales by reading the law literally (what a novel approach!), and the Colorado Supreme Court just upheld a lower ruling on a closely related matter: the privacy rights of teachers under its own state law.
A parent in Golden, Colo., had sought the names of teachers who called in sick over two days in September 2014; some teachers had said they were taking “collective action” in protest against school board policies, the Post Independent reports.
Rebuking the local teachers union, which sued to block the records’ release, the Court of Appeals ruled that the Colorado Open Records Act indeed applies to teacher absence records, which are not covered by a “personnel files exemption”:
The appellate court noted that “a teacher’s absence is directly related to the teacher’s job as a public employee.” It added that sick-leave records pertain to language in CORA that requires disclosure of “any compensation, including expense allowances and benefits, paid to employees by the state, its agencies, institutions, or political subdivisions.”
Colorado ruling takes broad view of public FOI access to records about teachers, "personnel exemption" is narrow. https://t.co/AQroJcUyWc
— Student Press Law (@SPLC) August 28, 2016
Interestingly, other government employee unions have sued to block the release of records regarding “complaints and disciplinary actions” against school-bus drivers in another Colorado school district – and the appellate ruling “may help determine the outcome” of that case, the Post Independent says.
This particular precedent in Colorado only happened because news organizations in the state banded together to ensure the government can’t hide records in the public interest using bogus privacy claims.
This happens too rarely when the subject is higher education, unless the sought information pertains to a student athlete or athletic staffer accused of sexual misconduct.
It would be nice if reporters would stop taking these self-serving claims from administrators at face value, challenge them directly, tell the audience when these privacy claims are dubious (the Associated Press did this once regarding the Duke noose hoax), and then bug their publishers to go to court to compel the release of this information.
Schools will keep getting away with hiding their skeletons if we keep believing that “privacy” is a magic word that shuts down legitimate questioning about matters in the public interest.