The New Jersey Appellate Division issued a decision on January 12, 2021, in the matter of Chris Doe v. Rutgers University, which offers some clarity to the obligation of school districts to respond to certain Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”) requests for student records. In the landmark decision of L.R. v. Camden City Public School District, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that documents containing information related to an individual student, even if all personally identifiable information is redacted, is not subject to release through an OPRA request. The Court reasoned that the New Jersey Regulations protecting “student records” as defined by the New Jersey Administrative Code, as well as Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”) and its Regulations, take precedence over OPRA, and thus those records maintain their protection under those laws. The Appellate Division most recently analyzed the question of whether the ruling in L.R. v. Camden applies when an individual makes an OPRA request for their own student records.
As an initial point, relying on the findings of the New Jersey Supreme Court in L.R. v. Camden, the Appellate Division instructed that only records containing personally identifiable information of students are protected from disclosure through OPRA requests, and therefore any other records request made under OPRA for records that do not have personally identifiable information must be provided. The Appellate Division reasoned that the public interest in nondisclosure of student records is based upon the need to keep information confidential, and thus that interest in this context only reaches records which contain personally identifiable information. In reaching this conclusion the Appellate Division found that the requestor was entitled to the requested records that do not reveal the identity of other students, which included the requestor’s own academic, discipline, and financial records to the extent that identifiable references to other students are redacted. In sum, the Appellate Division has held that providing a student with their own academic, discipline, and financial records, through an OPRA request, would not run in conflict with the confidentiality or privacy considerations which the Supreme Court of New Jersey determined supports nondisclosure of other student records through OPRA.
The Appellate Division reasoned that allowing the requestor to access his own student records with appropriate redactions does not impede the University’s ability to implement system wide protocols under FERPA to safeguard student records, and does not breach OPRA’s goal to protect confidential information. The Appellate Division went on to instruct that nothing under the FERPA Law or its implementing regulations precludes students from obtaining their own records through OPRA.
This decision has slightly narrowed the findings of the Supreme Court of New Jersey in L.R. v. Camden by instructing public schools and universities of their obligation to comply with OPRA requests by a student who seeks their own student records, with appropriate redactions. Therefore, before denying an OPRA request that seeks student records based New Jersey Regulations or FERPA, pause should be taken to determine whether the requestor is entitled based on a request for their own personal records.
The requirements established by the Appellate Division in this recent decision may run into conflict with the ruling in L.R. v. Camden, particularly where a student record makes reference to other students. While the Appellate Division calls for appropriate redaction, the Supreme Court made clear that certain student records remain protected under New Jersey Law and FERPA, even where personally identifiable information is redacted. It is critical that you seek advice from your Board Attorney where an OPRA request for student records is received to ensure compliance with all applicable laws and the most recent decisions issued by New Jersey Courts.
The content of this post is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion. You should consult a lawyer concerning your specific situation and any specific legal question you may have.