Impacts of Updated Guidance Concerning Homeless Students from the U.S. Department of Education

In December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) reauthorized the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youths program. Updated guidance was released by the U.S. Department of Education to help school districts understand the amendments to the McKinney-Vento Act, which will take effect October 1, 2016. These changes include the following:

  • Greater emphasis on identifying homeless children and youths, requiring that state and local education agencies provide training for staff members to best meet the unique needs of homeless students.
  • A focus on ensuring that eligible homeless students have access to academic and extracurricular activities, including magnet schools, summer school, career and technical education, advanced placement, online learning, and charter school programs.
  • Ensuring that homeless children and youths remain in their school of origin, which is defined as the school the student attended when permanently housed. The student must be able to remain at this school for the duration of homelessness, or until the end of the school year during which they become permanently housed once more.
  • Dispute resolution procedures which now address eligibility issues, school choice, and enrollment. In the event of a dispute between a parent, guardian, or youth and the local educational agency, the student must be immediately enrolled in the school in which he or she sought placement. The student must also be provided transportation to or from the school of origin for the duration of the dispute, at the request of the parent, guardian, or local liaison representing an unaccompanied youth.
  • New authority for local liaisons to confirm the eligibility of homeless children and youths for programs offered through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

This guidance and the amended McKinney-Vento Act aim to equip schools with the necessary tools they need to best serve homeless students and ensure that they continue to receive an education. More information and advice for helping homeless students can be found in a fact sheet released by the U.S. Department of Education. If you have questions on how these changes can be implemented within your school district, please contact an Ennis Britton attorney.

U.S. Supreme Court Issues Order in Transgender Case, But Does It Change Anything?

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination against students on the basis of sex for schools that receive federal funding. More recently, the definition of “sex” discrimination was expanded by federal regulatory agencies. In April 2014, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) indicated that Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to discrimination “based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.” In this guidance, OCR informed school districts that discrimination against students who identify as being transgender, whether in the curricular setting or in extracurricular activities, is prohibited.

This guidance was later reinforced when the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice issued joint guidance in May 2016 stating that both federal agencies will treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex for purposes of enforcing Title IX.

Therefore, according to the Education and Justice Departments’ interpretation and application of Title IX, school districts need to provide accommodations for transgender students. Ennis Britton has advised that decisions regarding transgender students be made on a case-by-case basis and in a team environment, wherein the parents, student, and administration may discuss the transition process for that student and the appropriate accommodations.

However, on August 3, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued an order that has caused a number of school districts to question their compliance with the Education and Justice Departments’ previous guidance. The SCOTUS order has temporarily stopped the enforcement of a lower federal court order that directed a school district in Virginia to permit a transgender male to use the boys’ bathroom at his school. Gloucester County Sch. Bd v. G.G., 579 U.S. ___ (2016).

The SCOTUS order did not reverse or overrule the guidance, interpretation, or application of Title IX that is being promulgated and enforced by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. Rather, the SCOTUS order maintained the status quo for that student and that Virginia school while the case plays out in the lower courts.

Caution should be exercised in reading too much into this SCOTUS order for a number of reasons. First, the deciding vote of Justice Breyer was a “courtesy.” His vote should not be preliminarily construed to be in alignment with four other justices as it relates to accommodations of transgender students in schools. Second, this order does not put a hold on the guidance set forth by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. The order applies to the one student involved, G.G., and to the Virginia school seeking to deny the student accommodations within its buildings. Finally, the guidance from the Education and Justice Departments still exists and can be expected to be enforced.

School districts should consult legal counsel in determining how best to maneuver the legal, social, and political landscapes when considering if and how to accommodate transgender students within their schools. Special consideration should be given to the fact that without a stay on the guidance or a statement otherwise from OCR, OCR will continue to enforce its interpretation of Title IX, which will include seeking to halt federal, Title IX funds for non-compliant school districts.

Public Records Update: Legislation and Cases

Laws regarding public records are under scrutiny across the United States, including in Ohio. Advanced technology has brought myriad ways to communicate information to U.S. citizens, who continue to demand increased transparency. Public-records law continues to develop and change in the form of both legislation and court decisions. Below are a few recent Ohio bills and cases dealing with public records that have an effect on school districts throughout the state.

House Bill 585: Body Cameras
The Ohio House introduced HB 585 on July 11, proposing that the record of body cameras worn by law enforcement officers be considered generally a public record if the officer is performing official duties. (This bill does not include any regulations on police dash cams.) The bill will specify circumstances in which a nonpublic record would become a public record, and circumstances in which recordings would not be public records. Personal or nonrelevant information, and generally, recordings of minors or victims, would be redacted. The bill would also require a local records commission to maintain records from a body camera for a minimum of one year unless the law enforcement agency is subject to a records retention schedule that establishes a longer period of time.

Senate Bill 321
This bill, which was signed into law in June, becomes effective in late September. This new law provides a procedure for someone who has been denied access to public records, in the form of mediation or filing with the court of claims.

The bill also contains a provision that a public office which places all of its public records online may limit the number of records a person may request to receive digitally to 10 per month. The requirements and limitations are as follows:

1. All records must be online and accessible to the public except for during outages that are not within the control of the public office.

2. Records that are not online cannot be subject to the limit.

3. The limit also does not apply if the person making such requests certifies that the request responses are not being forwarded or used for commercial purposes.

The bill modifies the attorney fee provisions of the statutes. An award of fees is now mandated to be considered remedial and not punitive, and to enforce this, the bill limits fees to those that are incurred prior to the record being turned over plus the fees incurred to produce the proof of the amount and reasonableness of the fees incurred. The court may reduce the award of fees if it determines that the suit was not necessary and the records could have been obtained through less formal means. Finally, a public office may itself be awarded costs and fees if the court determines that the suit to enforce the fulfillment of a public records request is frivolous.

Attorney Billing Statements
In the 2016 case State ex rel. Pietrangelo v. Avon Lake, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that, in certain circumstances, the professional fee summary of an attorney-fee billing statement is exempt from disclosure in a public-records request. In this case, the plaintiff, Pietrangelo, had requested certain public records from the City of Avon Lake, including attorney billing statements. The city complied with the request but redacted the following information from the attorney billing statements based on attorney-client privilege and attorney work product:

• Narrative descriptions of particular legal services rendered
• Exact dates on which such services were rendered
• The particular attorney rendering each service
• The time spent by each particular attorney on a particular day
• The billing rate of each particular attorney
• The total number of hours billed by each particular attorney for the invoiced period
• Total fees attributable to each particular attorney for the invoiced period

Pietrangelo then petitioned the Ninth District Court of Appeals for a writ of mandamus to compel the city to provide unredacted invoices, which the court granted. The Ohio Revised Code notes that “public records” do not include records that are prohibited from release by state or federal law.

In a previous decision, State ex rel. Anderson v. Vermilion (134 Ohio St.3d 120, 2012-Ohio-5320), the Ohio Supreme Court held that itemized statements, including dates of services, hours, rates, and money charged for the services, are not exempt from public-records law and therefore must be disclosed. However, in State ex rel. Dawson v. Bloom-Carroll Local School Dist. (131 Ohio St.3d 10, 2011-Ohio-6009), the same court found that the narrative portions of the statements were confidential but a summary of the invoice, including the attorney’s name, the invoice total, and the matter involved, was sufficient for the public-records request. One of the differences between the two cases, Anderson and Dawson, is that the matter in Dawson was pending litigation but the matter in Anderson was for general informational purposes.

In Pietrangelo v. Avon Lake, the Ohio Supreme Court held that this case resembles the Dawson case and that the records relating to the pending litigation were exempt from disclosure. “If disclosed, Pietrangelo may acquire information that would be useful in his litigation strategy against the city, whereas in Anderson, any harm from disclosure of attorney-client communication was remote or speculative.”
State ex rel. Pietrangelo v. Avon Lake, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-2974.

Directory Information

The Ohio Supreme Court determined that School Choice Ohio was entitled to records that constitute directory information as defined by the district’s public records policy. However, the organization did not have the right to compel the district to amend its student records policy.

School Choice obtains students’ contact information from Ohio public school districts via public-records requests. In addition to requesting the court to compel the district to disclose the records requested, the organization also attempted to compel the district to amend its policy to expand directory information and to require disclosure to its company by amending the parent notice and opt-out provisions. According to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), “directory information” includes the following student information:

• Name, address, telephone listing, and date and place of birth
• Major field of study
• Participation in officially recognized activities and sports
• Weight and height of members of athletic teams
• Dates of attendance
• Degrees and awards received
• The most recent previous educational agency or institution attended

Pursuant to FERPA, districts must determine which of the items listed above are to be considered directory information. Districts must then provide public notice to parents of what it defines as directory information and give them an opportunity to opt out of directory information being disclosed without prior written consent.

Ohio law defines directory information similarly and places an additional condition on disclosure – that directory information cannot be requested or disclosed for profit-making activities. In fact, whether directory information is being used for profit-making activities is the one time in public records law where the public office is permitted to inquire about the purpose of the request.

Ohio law also provides that a district may not limit the disclosure of directory information to representatives of the armed forces, business, industry, charitable institutions, other employers, and institutions of higher education unless such restriction is uniformly imposed on each of these types of representatives. The court determined that School Choice Ohio is not any of these types of organizations.

However, the court ultimately concluded that even with the limited way in which the district defined its directory information, which was lawful, the organization fit within the definition and was entitled to the records.

What This Decision Means to Your District
Many districts have received the annual requests from this particular organization and from others. This case considered the question of whether the organization is engaged in profit-making activity and answered in the negative. Therefore, districts should continue to disclose records, including directory information, in accordance with the relevant policy. Remember to consult your list of opt-outs whenever directory information is going to be disclosed without prior written consent of the parent. If you are considering changes to your public-records policies, please contact an Ennis Britton attorney for assistance or review.