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Education Reporter

Supreme Court to Decide Parents' Rights
An important case for students' and parents' privacy rights is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. Oral arguments were presented Nov. 27 in Falvo vs. Owasso Independent School District, which originated in Oklahoma in 1998 as a class action lawsuit brought by parent Kristja Falvo. Mrs. Falvo filed suit because students were grading each other's papers and reading the grades aloud for transcription by the teacher. She charged that, by refusing to change its policy, the school district was violating family privacy rights under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

Mrs. Falvo objected to the practice of peer grading based on errors and embarrassment to students. Her son, Phillip, then in middle school, was being mainstreamed into a regular class from a reading-improvement program and was ridiculed by other students for his grades. The school district ignored Falvo's objections, although it subsequently did allow silent reporting of the grades.

The school's defenders insisted that many common school practices, from publishing an honor roll to selecting first chairs in the orchestra, would end if the plaintiffs were to prevail. A District court held in favor of the school.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District court's decision and ruled in favor of the parents. The court did not impose liability on the school, but ordered it to end the practice of peer grading for children of parents who object. The Court held that "Congress intended FERPA to preclude a teacher from revealing to one student the grades of another when written in a grade book." Therefore, the Court reasoned, "it would be incongruous to permit a teacher to disclose or allow the dissemination of those grades to other students immediately before recording them in the grade book. . . ."

The school district appealed the Tenth Circuit's decision to the Supreme Court. Observers believe that, in taking the case, the high court may be indicating that it feels the Tenth Circuit expanded FERPA too far. But parents' rights groups, including Eagle Forum which filed an amicus brief in the case, assert that FERPA protects family rights and that an expansive interpretation is much preferable to a narrow view limiting parental rights, as is being sought by the public school system and the U.S. Justice Department. "Because of mandatory school attendance laws," they point out, "families need FERPA to guard against improper behavior by school officials."

Students and their families have enjoyed rights of privacy and access with regard to school records since FERPA was enacted in 1974. FERPA prevents the unauthorized release of student records and ensures parental access. The law is administered by the Family Policy Compliance Office (FPCO) of the Department of Education. For over 27 years, students, parents and schools have generally been well satisfied with FPCO's enforcement of FERPA.

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