A school board in Iowa is discussing where to place a student who is required to register as a sex offender. But because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the district’s superintendent will not say who the student is or where the student will be enrolled.
The Iowa City Community School District is legally required to offer education to all school-age children living within the district, including individuals who must register as sex offenders, according to the Iowa City Press-Citizen. The law, Superintendent Stephen Murley said, requires school boards to hold placement hearings to select the school that will educate the student with a sex offense. But because of FERPA, Murley said, district officials can’t disclose the student’s name, the offense the student committed and the name of the building where the student will be placed.
Source: Iowa City Press-Citizen, ICCSD board to mull placement of student sex offender (8/21/2014).
SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte: This is an unenviable decision, and it’s understandably tempting for a school district to try to give a kid a shot at rehabilitation and a normal life by keeping his secret from the public. But the school’s reflexive “FERPA made me do it” response almost certainly is wrong.
Congress amended the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act in 1999 to address this situation exactly, squarely and precisely on the nose. The Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act specifically and unequivocally tells schools and colleges that FERPA is no impediment to disclosing identifying information about people required to register with law enforcement as sex offenders.
Why? Because the whole point of the registry is — it might be kinda important to know who and where these people are.
While it’s occasionally possible for a kid to end up on the sex offender registry for doing something that isn’t especially heinous — like pushing “send” on a naked picture of herself to a guy who’s not that great at keeping secrets — some of the folks on that list are scary-dangerous. State and federal legislators created these registration requirements for a reason: To let the public decide who they want to steer clear of. Withholding the identity and location of the person undermines the public’s ability to make that judgment.
Even the privacy office at the Department of Education, whose employees historically aren’t so good with the reading thing, has been forced to admit that the law says what it says. In a 2005 advisory letter to a Kansas school district making exactly the judgment call that Iowa City is making now, the DOE said:
The Department of Education will not take enforcement action against any school district that has a policy or practice of releasing information that a State (or any agency authorized by a State) provides to the district under the [federal registration law] on a registered sex offender enrolled in an educational institution of that district.
Saying that a school can disclose (as FERPA does) is of course different than saying a school must disclose.
Iowa law requires state law-enforcement authorities to maintain a publicly accessible registry of sex offenders. The law also renders the records of all sex offenders open to the public — expressly including the records of juveniles (Iowa Code 692A.13.7.) So if the school was hit with a public-records request for the names and locations of registered sex offenders, neither federal law nor Iowa statutes should excuse the school from giving a complete answer.
The only reason this isn’t a four-alarm liar-liar-fire is that the Press-Citizen wasn’t told whether the student is in high school or in a lower grade. The federal FERPA exemption covers only “secondary” schools and colleges, so if the perp is a fifth-grader — and let’s not overestimate the good judgment and self-restraint of schools and police when it comes to labeling toddlers as “sex offenders” for playground horseplay — then the FERPA answer is a valid one.
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