Despite Student’s Appearance On Camera, School May Have Violated Privacy Laws

I still don’t have anything definitive but at least one student privacy expert suggests that Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies network of charters may have erred in releasing details about a student’s disciplinary record — even though they never name the student in the document. 

As you may already know, the charter network released information about a student who appeared with his mother on the PBS NewsHour segment complaining about having been suspended for minor infractions, to highlight that the story told on camera was different from what the official record had to say.

But while the urge to defend is understandable — and the potential for abuse from aggrieved parents and tunnel-vision journalists is clear — releasing information like this is apparently not allowed.  

According to Frank LoMonte from the Student Press Law Center (celebrating its 41st year at a NYC event tonight), “You could get your grade-point-average tattooed across your forehead and that still wouldn’t entitle your school to release it.” 

See his full email response below:

Unnamed

Success Academy has declined to tell me whether they scrutinized the letter for FERPA issues before releasing it. “We’re not going to comment on consultations with attorneys,” public affairs head Ann Powell told me via email.

Instead, they’re pushing to get even more corrections/apologies from PBS NewsHour than they received earlier this week.  

According to Powell, the network has asked for at least one correction in the past (from Juan Gonzalez) over a ten-year period. (Local reporters tell me otherwise, but not on the record.)

Why push so hard this time around, even after getting an apology from the station? “This wasn’t a case where someone made a mistake,” according to Powell. “This was a case where we asked in advance to know allegations and the journalist deliberately refused to let us have an opportunity to even try to elucidate the matter so we had no confidence they would act in good faith (nor have they!).”

I’m going to see if I can get more insight on this from PBS and other FERPA experts. In the meantime, it seems clear that this area of FERPA law is important for education journalists and may be new to some (as it was to me). The most common complaints about FERPA have to do with schools using it to deny access to schools or information about students. In this version, FERPA is being used to prevent a school from responding to charges being made against it — and media coverage is the vehicle (knowingly or otherwise).

Why didn’t Success just release a more general letter publicly, and share the more detailed information privately with PBS and others? Doing so might still have violated FERPA, but not so obviously (distractingly). Also: Evie Blad called this one first, far as I know.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.