|The "Daily Muckraker" Newspaper and other various groups want their readers and the community of Anywhere USA to believe everything they say and write, not unlike how the monks are expected to behave in this Gahan Wilson Cartoon.|
FERPA is simple, yet complex. It has rules that must be followed in order to assure student records are kept confidential. But as I pointed out in part I, not everything that is known about a student is protected under FERPA.*
So let's look at a fictitious, hypothetical scenario. I'll call it the "Locker Room Attack at Anywhere USA High School."
Remember, the account below is a fictional story.
Imagine if a basketball team from Anywhere USA High School is in the locker room after losing an important Friday Night game. Imagine if two of the players from the team lure a team assistant named "Jorge Zapata" (who has a physical disability) out of the locker room and assault him, knocking him unconscious viciously while simultaneously calling him disgusting racial slurs, like this. [NOTE: This linked video from a recent actual attack near Detroit, MI is violent, disturbing, contains reprehensible images and language, and is difficult to watch--viewer discretion is STRONGLY ADVISED-victim in this video, according to news reports, retrieved his phone, was not seriously injured, and the perpetrators were caught....]
Imagine if the attackers steal the victim's cell phone and film the incident with the victim's own camera phone while "Jorge" is unconscious. Imagine if these assailants place this violent video on a social media platform that many of the students in Anywhere USA High School could subsequently see?
Imagine if "Jorge" wakes up, is able to find his phone, and is not too badly injured, and decides not to report the attack because he is humiliated, and instead he just internalizes the matter, and he keeps the incident to himself. After all, he knows his attackers, and he hears that they are already lining up their stories to say that the whole incident was nothing more than slap-boxing, and the incident is actually going to be blamed on Jorge. Everyone starts to repeat the story that Jorge started the whole thing by "slap boxing" the players and starting trouble. If anything comes of the incident, the attackers will say Jorge is simpy "Lying on them!"
The following Monday though, the students at the school are buzzing over the incident; many have seen the video. [NOTE: This linked video from a recent actual attack near Detroit, MI is violent, disturbing, contains reprehensible images and language, and is difficult to watch--viewer discretion is STRONGLY ADVISED-victim in this video, according to news reports, retrieved his phone, was not seriously injured, and the perpetrators were caught...]
An investigation by the school is launched. Students are questioned, and law enforcement is brought in.
Meanwhile, within the next week to ten day period, a duly elected school board member for the Anywhere USA School District hears from three (3) separate parents and three (3) separate students about the violent assault, and he also hears about but does not see the video [NOTE: This linked video from a recent actual attack near Detroit, MI is violent, disturbing, contains reprehensible images and language, and is difficult to watch--viewer discretion is STRONGLY ADVISED]taken of the incident from these constituents. This particular school board member's district includes Anywhere USA High School, and this board member is very engaged with this school, as he has many relatives that attend here. Furthermore, this school board member has been vocal about his concerns about violence, bullying, and harassment occurring in local schools like Anywhere H.S. USA. Shocked at what he has heard, this particular school board member immediately calls the superintendent of the Anywhere USA school district with what he has now heard from several sources close to the incident.
He is told by the superintendent that the situation is known to the district, and that an official investigation is already underway. "We've got this" the superintendent tells the board member.
Over the course of the next several weeks after this incident erupts, many accounts of the attack are given in the local press, particularly in Anywhere USA's only real paper, "The Daily Muckraker."
Relatives of Jorge Zapata's attackers give press conferences, framing the incident as a harmless prank. To make matters worse, these relatives frame the incident as a racial one, complaining that the anywhere USA high school district is targeting the attackers and trying to ruin and destroy their lives because these alleged perpetrators are "young men of color." Relatives of the attackers enlist various local social justice groups to further this narrative, while simultaneously blaming the school board for being "racist." (Ironically, as it happens, details emerge that indicate every student involved in the attack, the coach of the team, the SRO of the school, the dean of the school, and principal of the school, are all African-American.)
Meanwhile, Jorge Zapata and his family are upset over the coverage--they contemplate coming forward with their side of the story.
Then the "Daily Muckraker" decides to do an editorial, excoriating the administrators and school board of Anywhere USA for being overly draconian in the discipline recommendations (removal from school) that the attacker's parents have reported in the press have been meted out by the district. The Muckraker editorial is widely panned.
A local radio station requests an interview with the school board member who initially was given the reports from constituents about the violent incident. This board member agrees, and he carefully qualifies his statement to the station as having come from unofficial sources--after all, he notes, school board members for Anywhere USA High School district do not have independent access to student records, except in very limited circumstance, and none of the board had been briefed on this particular incident yet. This board member disputes the account of the incident in the "Muckraker", and he disputes, based upon the hearsay from six constituents, the narrative that this attack was just a harmless prank. He flatly refutes this and states that everyone involved should wait for all the facts to come forward before they "Rush to Judgment." This board member is very angry about the media's inaccurate portrayal of the incident; he feels the media is using the incident to attack the district for something that is simply not true.
So, with this as the backdrop, did this board member violate FERPA by speaking out against the media's inaccurate and badly biased coverage? Was he within his rights to defend the district, school board, and staff against these attacks in the press? Does his freedom of speech outweigh his duty to protect confidential information?
These are all interesting questions.
Let's dig into this deeper in part III
*The content of this post is my opinion and my opinion only-- based upon a fictional account of an incident that happened nowhere ever combined with what I have read and learned about FERPA over the last two months of intensive research. I am not an attorney, I did not play one on TV, and I did not sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night either—but I can read and I do have an opinion on this subject. But this is one man’s opinion only.