U football crisis: Train wreck of a privacy law made matters worse

From The Star Tribune

The abortive University of Minnesota football walkout could have been avoided if the university had been more forthcoming about the seriousness of disciplinary charges that led to the removal of 10 players from the Holiday Bowl roster.

It took the leak of internal investigative documents to a local TV station to awaken Gopher players to the severity of sexual-misconduct allegations against their teammates. It shouldn’t have.

Time and again in the course of the bowl-boycott saga, the U cited the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act as an excuse for being opaque about its disciplinary practices. Coach Tracy Claeys even claimed that FERPA forbade him from disclosing the number of student-athletes that the U had recommended for expulsion.

FERPA is a train wreck of a statute. Intended to protect only the confidentiality of “education records,” the law has become a catchall excuse for educational institutions to avoid accountability.

In New York, a grieving family was told that if they wanted to see the video of the football game where their son was fatally injured, they’d have to take the school to court because videos of football games are “FERPA education records.” In California, a mother nearly had to sue to get the scores of her own children’s swimming meets. If your child comes home beaten up on the school bus and you ask to see the surveillance video to identify the attackers, prepare to be turned away — because, yes, that privacy law.

Even statistics increasingly are being concealed under the blanket of FERPA. In Ohio, you can’t find out how many times guns were brought into your child’s school, because the state Department of Education claims revealing the data would — how, nobody can explain — compromise federally protected privacy rights.

Congress drafted FERPA in 1974 with one narrow purpose in mind: To keep K-12 schools from disclosing psychological evaluations and similar documents to law enforcement before parents had the opportunity to inspect and correct them for misleading information. But thanks to aggressive lawyering by secretive colleges — and “home cooking” from deferential state-court judges — the statute has been judicially expanded beyond all rational boundaries. One Ohio court even classified e-mails between a football coach and a booster suspected of offering cars to recruits as “education records.”

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