Last fall, a 16-year-old student died after collapsing while playing during a football game. The student, Damon Janes, was in a helmet-to-helmet collision during the game’s kickoff. At the previous week’s game, he suffered two hits to the head as well. Janes’ parents have filed a notice of claim accusing Westfield Academy and Central School of failing to monitor him after the first incident. The boy’s parents also accuse the school of outfitting players with substandard helmets.
The Westfield/Brocton football team that Janes played for is shared between the Westfield and Brocton school districts. The Buffalo News requested correspondence between both school districts and outside entities discussing Janes’ death. They also requested videos of last season’s football games. The Westfield school district has declined to release any of the requested records. Alan Holbrook, the district’s business manager and district clerk, told The Buffalo News the records were protected by FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. (Brocton school officials have not released the documents either, but are not citing FERPA. Brocton Superintendent John Hertlein told The Buffalo News that "this is really sensitive stuff, and I’m not messing with it.")
Source: The Buffalo News, Parents of high school football player who died file claim. (Jan. 27, 2014)
SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte: So before getting to the FERPA stuff, you’ve got to admire the innovation shown by Superintendent Hertlein in pioneering the “I’m not messing with it” exemption to the New York Freedom of Information Law. It’s like “Yolo!” for official government responsibilities. “You want me to do my job? Ha ha, yolo!” And hakuna matata, it’s all good!
Since Superintendent Hertlein is under the impression that people get to choose which laws they feel like obeying, going to school in his district ought to be a blast. “You want me to pick up that soda can I just threw on the floor? Sorry, I’m not messing with it.” “I’m supposed to learn the quadratic formula? Naw man, I’m not messing with it.” “Come to work with pants on? No thanks, bud, I’m not messing with it.” This must be the funnest district in America! (Or the scariest.)
(Free editing tip to the Buffalo News: This is where [brackets] can be your friend. For reader clarity, they really might’ve helped the story: “I’m not messing with [obeying the law].”)
So, are images of high school students playing football confidential? Well, that would be unwelcome news to the folks at Time Warner Cable. They just paid the New York State high school sports association big bucks for a 10-year exclusive contract to broadcast high school sports — and curiously, there appears to be nothing in the agreement requiring black rectangles across the players’ faces.
Assuming the Westfield school district is right that the contents of a football game are covered by FERPA, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association has just signed over the right to broadcast confidential education records to every household in the state. (“Coming up next, stay tuned for the hilarious hijinks on, ‘That’s My New York High School Report Card!’”)
I’m actually super-hoping that Westfield turns out to be right. Because if high school sports videos really are FERPA records, then the student’s family has an absolute legal right to insert correcting information into the records if they believe the records are unfair. There are probably some old high school baseball videos showing me overthrowing the first baseman on routine ground balls, and I’m going to demand the right to insert corrective footage showing I really know how to make that throw, so that in case the White Sox happen to still have a working VCR around, they don’t get the wrong impression.
So yeah, this is completely stupid-slash-dishonest.
You’d sort-of hope that not being stupid-slash-dishonest would be pretty high on the attributes that a school board would be seeking in a superintendent, but maybe they leave that off the questionnaires in upstate New York. Maybe the interview consists of, “So, you’re okay living in Buffalo in January? You’re hired!”
Videos of high school football: Not confidential. Not educational. Not FERPA. Not the least tiny little bit. But thanks for playing.
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