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FERPA Frustrations: How to outmaneuver university officials to get the info you need

By Donovan Harrell

Three journalists offered advice to students struggling with public records requests during a brown bag session at the 2014 CAR Conference.

Student attendees talked about attempts to outmaneuver their respective universities, which had been denying public records requests using laws such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

“FERPA has become the thought police,” said Jill Riepenhoff, a projects reporter for the Columbus Dispatch. “If they think they know what you’re after, they can deny it because they think that would somehow lead to somebody’s identity.”

Riepenhoff suggested students try rephrasing their requests to something less specific that still contains the information they’re seeking. For example, when students are suspended after being suspected for involvement in hazing, instead of asking for the names of the students, Riepenhoff told the students to ask for a synopsis of all of the hazing incidents that were reported in the past five years

Requesting data can be something of a “fishing expedition,” said Adam Goldstein, an attorney advocate at the Student Press Law Center. “If you have a targeted request, you know too much,” he said.

Goldstein said students should understand how to request public records from their schools.

“You have to raise the suffering of not responding to your requests,” Goldstein said.

Tyler Dukes, a public records reporter from Raleigh, N.C., said he likes to challenge universities because they’re powerful and no one holds them accountable. “Universities mean plenty of corruption,” he said.

Riepenhoff agreed, citing cases in which college athletes were seemingly let off easy for alleged rape cases and boosters received extravagant benefits. Riepenhoff filed public records requests with athletics departments and audited their spending.

Dukes urged students to regularly file and follow up on public records requests once they return to their respective universities. Still, he said, while public records are useful, there is no substitute for great reporting.

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