Off the Record: The Emerging Right to Control One’s School Files


A law student attempting to transfer to another school was rejected on the basis of a letter written by one of his professors, falsely accusing him of dishonesty and cheating. A parent found a political critique of a speech his son had delivered on a local radio program entered in the student’s permanent record by the high school principal. Elsewhere, when a mother was told that psychological tests revealed that her daughter should repeat kindergarten, the mother’s request to see those test results was denied. Another parent who had gained access to his son’s school record was surprised to discover that it contained observations by his teachers that he was “strangely introspective,” “unnaturally interested in girls,” and, at the age of twelve, sported “peculiar political ideas.”

These are but a few examples of what one writer has called the “school record prison.” Students come and go, but the information in their school records remains behind to haunt them–or runs ahead to greet them many years later in an ill-fated employment interview. American schools today gather and create more information about students than those of any other country. Sophisticated evaluation techniques, computerized storage and retrieval systems, and a philosophy that seeks to educate and socialize the “whole child,” all contribute to the enthusiasm and reach of the modern data gatherers. Notably absent has been the realization that information is power, and that that power can be abused. The rights of students and their parents to control what information is entrusted to school recordkeepers–and to control what is done with it-have been largely ignored. Yet those rights do exist and are beginning to be asserted against a wide range of abuses.”

This Note examines the substance and sources of these rights, focusing on (1) the right to inspect school records; (2) the right to have them held in confidence from noneducational personnel; and (3) the right to challenge their contents. The preliminary section briefly outlines the history and current state of school record practices; succeeding sections discuss the treatment of student/parent rights in the common law, a sampling of state statutes, and important recent federal legislation-the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. Finally, the constitutional dimensions of these rights will be explored.

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