Right to Know Law Ruling

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled on July 20, 2018 that the Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) required disclosure of a school bus surveillance video, which showed a teacher roughly disciplining a student on a bus.

The Court rejected the arguments of the Easton School District that the video was not subject to the RTKL law.

Easton SD Arguments

The District argued that:

  • the video was an exempt public record because its disclosure would lead to a loss of federal funding;
  • provides information on discipline, demotion or discharge of an agency employee; and
  • was admitted as evidence at an arbitration proceeding.

The Newspaper’s Request

The RTKL request was made by the Express Times newspaper, which stated in pertinent part:

“As per Pennsylvania’s right-to-know law I’m requesting information in connection with an incident on a school bus outside Paxinosa Elementary School, which is temporarily located in the rear of Easton Area Middle School in Forks Township. It’s come to my attention that elementary school teacher Aaron Dufour disciplined a child roughly on a school bus in front of the school on the morning of Feb. 8, 2017; Feb. 9, 2017; or Feb. 10, 2017. It’s my understanding he grabbed a child and “slammed” him down in a bus seat. It’s my understanding that Mr. Dufour has either been suspended or terminated as a result of this incident….

It’s my understanding that each school bus is outfitted with a security camera. I would like a copy of the surveillance video if any exists that captured this incident involving Mr. Dufour on the school bus in front of Paxinosa Elementary School on either Feb. 8, Feb. 9 or Feb. 10, 2017.”

The written request also sought information about Dufour’s employment status and his annual salary.

Federal Privacy Act

The court considered whether the Privacy Act limited disclosure.

The Privacy Act prohibits schools receiving federal financial assistance from disclosing “sensitive information about students” without parental consent. Specifically, Section 1232g(b)(1) of the Privacy Act provides:

“No funds shall be made available under any applicable program to any educational agency or institution which has a policy or practice of permitting the release of education records (or personally identifiable information contained therein other than directory information, as defined in paragraph (5) of subsection (a)) of students without the written consent of their parents….”

20 U.S.C. §1232g(b)(1) (emphasis added).

The Commonwealth Court noted that the video captured images of the students who were on the bus, but it is not directly relevant to those students. Rather, it is directly relevant to the teacher’s performance, who roughly disciplined a child. The court also said that several federal court decisions have held that a video recording that concerns a teacher, not a student, is not an “education record” under the Privacy Act.

Federal Case against Pleasant Valley SD

In ruling for disclosure, the Commonwealth Court cited a federal case involving a Monroe County school district.

In Young v. Pleasant Valley School District (M.D. Pa., No. 3:07-CV-854, filed June 26, 2008), 2008 WL 11336157 (unreported), a school teacher was charged with giving students sexually offensive materials. The parents of one minor student sought emails sent to the school district by other parents with complaints about the teacher. The school district argued, inter alia, that the emails were educational records within the meaning of the Privacy Act and could not be disclosed without consent of all other parents. The United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania rejected the district’s argument, stating:

“The records in question here — e-mails containing complaints about a teacher’s performance — do not appear to be the types of records covered by [the Privacy Act]. Those complaints do not necessarily contain any information directly related to a student. Instead, they are directly related to a teacher and only tangentially related to the student…. As such, we could probably conclude after examining the e-mails that they are not an educational record and not subject to [the Privacy Act’s] requirement.”

Irrelevant that Video in Personnel File

The Commonwealth Court also rejected the notion that the video was exempt from disclosure merely by placing it into the employee’s confidential personnel file.

Opinion Available for Download

The case is Easton Area Sch. Dist. v. Miller, 2018 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 320 (Commw. Ct. July 20, 2018) and may be downloaded from the court’s website by following the link in the case name.

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