Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly NewsBlast. Written by Attorney Thomas B. Mooney.
Dear Legal Mailbag:
One of my teachers is a nosy parker, and she is always getting involved in things that are none of her business, at least officially. I have tried to ignore her because I have better things to do, but it looks like she got herself into a real pickle this time.
One of the parents in my school is constantly making demands for special treatment of her precious daughter, who is in fourth grade. Last week, the parent wrote an email to her daughter’s teacher, demanding that the bus stop be changed to be right across from her house so that she can have eyes on her child while she is waiting for the bus. The teacher forwarded the email to the nosy parker, who then sent it to a number of her teacher friends with her acerbic commentary about the “Princess” and her doting mother. Apparently one of these “friends” knows the mother, and she let slip that she had seen an email about the daughter. The mother, now irate, was in my office yesterday demanding copies of all emails by my staff members about her daughter. Given that my nosy parker has no educational responsibility for the daughter, may I take the position that the email is not covered by FERPA and is thus not disclosable?
Nice try. The original email is a FERPA-protected record because it is a record maintained by the district that relates to a specific student. Teachers can share FERPA-protected records, of course, when the person to whom they disclose the record has a legitimate educational interest, i.e. a need to have the information to do his or her job. A coach, for example, who wants to assure that his athletes remain eligible for sports has the right to receive and review their grades. However, here neither the nosy parker nor the teachers to whom she forwarded the email had any legitimate interest in knowing of the parent’s request. Accordingly, your staff violated the FERPA rights of the parent.
Moreover, under the Freedom of Information Act, the parent can obtain a copy of these emails, including those with commentary from the various teachers. As you may know, FERPA-protected records are exempt from disclosure under the FOIA. However, that exemption exists to preserve the confidentiality of such records. Here, however, the parent herself has the right to the information, and the exemption for FERPA-protected records does not apply. Upon her request, you will have to provide copies of the emails to her.
Will teachers ever learn not to embarrass themselves and others by sending ill-advised emails? Writing these teachers up for their unprofessional conduct would be a good start.