Fifty Shades of FERPA: How Universities and Athletic Programs Use FERPA as Their Personal Loophole
Wednesday, April 11, 2018 at 10:54AM
David H.K. Nguyen

FERPA is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It places significant limitations on colleges’ disclosure and handling of student records. These limitations and regulations apply to all public and private colleges or any institution that receives federal funding. FERPA dives deeper when we look into collegiate athletes. The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) requires all collegiate athletes to fill out a consent form, agreeing to disclose educational records to the association that are covered by FERPA. Manipulation becomes a problem with FERPA since there are so many vague shades to it. In recent years, athletic programs and universities use the many “shades” to find a loophole or try to use FERPA to protect its reputation and cover up scandals.

In 2011, The Ohio State University Football Coach Jim Tressel received an email about his football players exchanging football jerseys, rings, and signatures for tattoos. Tressel decided to only email his mentor and keep it concealed. Once this information leaked, ESPN requested information regarding Tressel’s emails and he denied them three times. ESPN then filed a case against The Ohio State University. The court ruled siding with The Ohio State University that Tressel’s emails were deemed “educational records” and exempt from disclosure to ESPN.

In 2013, Knightnews.com filed to obtain public records from The University of Central Florida. However, when they received the records, The University of Central Florida had redacted records on fraternities’ disciplinary hearings, amongst other matters, claiming they had the right to redact the information under FERPA. Knightnews.com sued The University of Central Florida because they thought redacting this information was illegal.  In 2014, a circuit court judge agreed with The University of Central Florida that the redactions were legal. This case was used to show how state open records laws yield to FERPA. This resulted in KnightNews.com losing six out of the seven counts that were filed.

In 2016, the University of Kentucky filed a suit to appeal that the university violated the Open Records Act in the investigation of former associate professor James Harwood. The University of Kentucky provided Harwood’s settlement but failed to mention any of the accusations the Kentucky Kernel was looking for. The University of Kentucky claimed they could not release any information about the investigation because the information were “educational records” under FERPA. Before the case could reach a hearing, Harwood resigned. Hardwood’s victims will not have a chance to appeal and this case will not inform future employers if he applies elsewhere.

These cases show how some universities are using federal law to hide their scandals and as a way to save their reputations. In 2018, an article by Zach Greenberg mentions the more universities use FERPA to hide damaging information about their athletic program or about their university, the seriousness of student safety consequences increases. If these agencies think they can hide a rape case from “getting out,” this can lead to an increase in sexual assault on campuses because students then think they can get away with it. Just the same with the athletes from The Ohio State University. Since they got away with exchanging collegiate goods and memorabilia for tattoos, what is to stop other student athletes from thinking they can do something that is on par or worse? FERPA needs to be more clearly defined, as the many “shades” can provide a loophole to those interpreting it. Once FERPA is clearly defined, no longer will members of athletic programs and universities get to escape scandals unscathed. No longer do athletic programs and universities get to hide behind FERPA. We can finally end the trend of these reoccurring loophole cases involving FERPA.

This post was authored by Roberto Moya, a masters student in Higher Education Administration at The University of Texas at San Antonio. 

Article originally appeared on Highereducationlaw.org (http://www.highereducationlaw.org/).
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