A dispute over the disclosure of student records has led to the Court of Appeals for Ohio’s Second Circuit to analyze whether a student’s right to privacy in education records extinguishes upon death.

Both federal and state laws protect the confidentiality of student education records and personally identifiable information. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”) protects against the disclosure of education records without the prior written consent of the parent or guardian of the student. Education records are defined by the Act as “those records, files, documents, and other materials which (i) contain information directly related to a student; and (ii) are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a person acting for such agency or institution.” The right to consent to the disclosure of student records transfers to a student upon reaching the age of 18, unless the student remains a dependent of their parents.  

R.C. 3319.321 also provides protection for student information. This statute is broader in its scope, forbidding the disclosure of any personally identifiable student information other than directory information.

The request at issue surrounded a former student who committed a mass shooting in August of 2019, killing 9 people and injuring 27. The shooter was killed by law enforcement officials at the scene. The Associated Press, among other media outlets, made requests to the school for records of the shooter, particularly discipline records. The school released only directory information, citing to the privacy protections of FERPA and R.C. 3319.321.

The media filed a lawsuit asking the Court to force the school to release the requested records. The media alleged that while a student’s right to privacy protections under the applicable laws transfers to the student into adulthood, there should be an exception that the right to privacy in this regard ceases upon death. 

The Court found the analysis inapplicable due to the school’s obligations under the laws in addition to the individual’s privacy rights conferred by the laws. The two are simply not comparable. The Court, noting that neither FERPA nor R.C. 3319.321 contains an exception for the death of a student, declined to create one from the bench.

State ex rel. Cable News Network, Inc. v. Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local Schools, 2019-Ohio-4187