Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

School Not Required to Release Records of Deceased Dayton Shooter

Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local School District does not have to release to the news media the school records of Connor Betts, who killed nine and injured 27 others in a 32-second mass shooting in Dayton last year, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court stated the Ohio Student Privacy Act (OSPA) prohibits the disclosure of student records without the written consent of an adult former student, and makes no exception if the former student died without giving consent.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Melody J. Stewart stated the General Assembly crafted some exceptions for the release of student records without consent, but did not expressly state that the death of a student permits a school district to release the records. Betts, a 2013 Bellbrook High School graduate, was 24 years old in August 2019 when police killed him at the scene of his shooting spree.

“The records of a person who attended a public school can be disclosed only with the consent of the student, if that student is 18 years of age or older. If that student is deceased, he is no longer available to grant consent,” the majority opinion stated.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, and Michael P. Donnelly joined the opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy explained that the text of the OSPA is written in the present tense and limits the release of records concerning “any student attending a public school,” and does not apply to Betts, a former student who is deceased and no longer “attending” a public school.

News Media Seek Information About Shooter
In an attempt to seek more background information about Betts, seven local and national media companies filed public-records requests with the Bellbrook-Sugarcreek district to inspect the school district’s files on Betts, including any disciplinary records. The district denied the request, stating they were exempt from the Ohio Public Records Act.

The district maintained the exemption in R.C. 149.43(A)(1)(v) does not allow the release of records that are “prohibited from disclosure by state or federal law.” The district cited the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the OSPA, which is R.C. 3319.321(B) as the laws that prevented the release of the records without Betts’ consent.

The news media collectively sought a writ of mandamus from the Second District Court of Appeals directing the district to release the records. The Second District ruled the OSPA prohibited the release, and did not address whether FERPA also prevented the release. The media companies appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which was required to review the court of appeals’ denial of the writ.

Court Reviewed Student Privacy Law
The majority opinion noted that R.C. 3319.321(B) does not allow a district to release “personally identifiable information” other than directory information such as students’ names, years of attendance, and address, without the written consent of a parent or guardian for a public-school student under 18, or the consent of any student 18 or older. The law also permits a school district to ¬†¬†provide information to law enforcement when a child is missing or to probation departments for those on community control.

The Court noted that while the law provides these specific exemptions, the legislature did not create an exception for the release of records upon the death of a former student. The Court found the Second District properly denied the request to turn over Betts’ records.

The opinion noted the news organizations urged the Court to follow the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation of FERPA. According to the department’s section charged with FERPA compliance, schools can release the information of deceased students.

The Court stated that while the OSPA was enacted to bring Ohio into compliance with FERPA, the laws are not identical. The school district maintained the General Assembly adopted broader protections than FERPA in the state law. The Court wrote that it was not permitted to interpret the federal or state laws because the language in R.C. 3319.321(B) is unambiguous and the Court must apply the law as written.

“While there might be policy reasons to carve out an exception to R.C. 3319.321(B)’s protections for situations like the one before us in this case, the decision to do so is not ours to make,” the opinion concluded.

While Justice Kennedy maintained the records pertain only to students currently attending a public school, the majority countered that the language the dissent refers to does not relate to an individual’s current status at a public school but to the scope of personally identifiable information being requested, and the OSPA was passed to bring Ohio into compliance with FERPA. The majority noted that FERPA requires schools to prevent the disclosure of the records of former students, and it would not make sense that Ohio lawmakers adopted a law that did not meet FERPA’s requirement.

Law Does Not Apply to Deceased Students, Dissent Maintains
In her dissent, Justice Kennedy wrote that the majority is not interpreting the law as written but adding words to the law by including deceased students. Citing Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the dissent noted that the word “attending” means “to be present” and “go to,” which denotes present and continuing action.

“It does not include something in the past that has ended or something yet to come,” the dissent stated.

“The plain meaning of the phrase ‘any student attending a public school’ refers to a person who is currently and continuously going to that school. In contrast, a person who attended school in the past cannot be said to be attending the school under any common usage of the word,” Justice Kennedy wrote.

The dissent stated that although the majority interprets the law to include a former student, the General Assembly knew how to limit access to student records to those who do and had attended a public school, and lawmakers chose to write the law to pertain only to students currently in attendance.

She concluded that it might be good policy for Ohio to prohibit access to records for both current and former students of a public school, “but it is the General Assembly, not this court, that is the ultimate arbiter of public policy in this state.”

“(E)ven if there were a risk to federal funding, it would not grant this court super-legislative authority to substitute its judgment for that of the General Assembly and rewrite the plain language that the General Assembly enacted,” she explained.

2019-1433. State ex rel. Cable News Network, Inc. v. Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local Schools, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-5149.

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Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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