Do e-mails about a special education student qualify as “educational records” covered by FERPA and the California Education Code?

A case involving the Tulare County Office of Education deals with an issue that is sure to recur as parents exercise rights under the federal Family Education Right to Privacy Act (“FERPA,” 20 U.S.C. section 1232g), and related California statutes, such as Education Code section 56504 (right to review student records).</p><!--break--><p>The case is <a href="/sites/default/files/Tulare_email_case_08-1215.pdf">S.A. v. Tulare County Office of Education (No. CV F 08-1215 (E.D. Cal.)</a>.  The plaintiffs, parents of an autistic student who had received special education services, requested copies of all email messages maintained by the Tulare Office of Education that “concerned or personally identified” their child. The agency produced hard copies of emails that had been printed out and stored in the student’s file. They did not produce other emails that may have resided elsewhere within the agency’s digital storage media (including “deleted” or “purged” emails that still may have been present within the agency’s system for storing electronic information).  The parents complained to the California Department of Education, contending (1) that the local agency had failed to produce copies of all emails about their child pursuant to California Education Code section 56504 (which generally grants parents the right to inspect education records about their children); and (2) that the local official had destroyed student records without parental notification when they “purged” email messages from their computer system. When that complaint produced no relief, the parents filed suit in federal court.  In ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment, the court generally ruled in favor of the local education officials, holding that only the email messages that were printed and placed in the student file were “maintained” by the local school officials.  To quote the court, “an email is an education record only if it both contains information related to the student and is maintained by the educational agency.” As to deleted email messages, the court ruled that they were not “maintained” by the local district and, therefore, did not have to be produced.  A copy of the ruling is attached.

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