Ohio Supreme Court: Dayton shooter’s school records not part of public record

Courtesy of the Ohio Supreme Court

The school district where the Dayton shooter went to school is not required to release school records to a media source, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

After national news network CNN and other media outlets brought the case before the state’s highest court, a six-judge majority ruled that the Ohio Student Privacy Act protects the information Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local School District has about Connor Betts.

Betts was the shooter in the Oregon District of Dayton in August 2019, in which nine people were killed and 27 were injured. Betts, who was 24 at the time, was killed by law enforcement at the scene of the shooting.

Betts graduated from Bellbrook High School in 2013.

The court said seven local and national media outlets filed public records requests to the school district for Betts’ file, which would have included any disciplinary records. The district cited two privacy laws, the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Ohio Student Privacy Act (OSPA) in denying the records requests.

A Second District Court of Appeals decision said the OSPA protected the information, leading to the appeal to the Supreme Court.

Justice Melody J. Stewart wrote in the majority opinion that the language in Ohio law regarding student records is “unambiguous,” and that the law does not provide an exception when a student can no longer give consent because of death.

“If the General Assembly intended for the death of a person to alter the confidentiality of certain information, it could have expressly enacted such a rule,” the majority opinion stated.

Still, the majority ruled that just because the law doesn’t specify the fate of confidential student records after the student’s death, that “does not render the statute ambiguous.”

Justice Sharon Kennedy was the lone dissent in the case, citing grammar as part of the reason the law should not be applied in this case.

In the state privacy law, it says a student’s “personally identifiable information other than directory information concerning any student attending a public school” can’t be released or accessed without the written consent of the parent, guardian or custodian of a student if the student is younger than 18, or the written consent of the student if they are older than 18.

“The majority reads the text in both the present and past tenses to pertain to both students currently attending public school and former students who attended public school,” Kennedy wrote. “However, the General Assembly’s use of the word ‘attending’ is not susceptible to both a present and past-tense interpretation.”

Kennedy said policy could be created by the Ohio legislature to limit access to current and former students of a public school, but it was not the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to create such a law.

Stewart addressed the dissent directly in the majority opinion, calling the view on present tenses in the law “a nonsensical reading of a statute specifically intended to bring Ohio into compliance with FERPA and to help ensure that Ohio schools can receive federal funds.”

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, along with justices Judith French, Patrick Fischer, Patrick DeWine and Michael Donnelly, all joined in the majority decision.

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