Gonzaga U. lawyers defend school from FERPA violation allegations

Posted 2:35 p.m. April 29

by Robbie Friedman
U-WIRE (DC BUREAU)

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – The boundaries of the Family Educational Privacy and Rights Act came under scrutiny during a Supreme Court hearing last week as lawyers for Gonzaga University defended school officials against allegations from a former student who wants the right to sue the university in civil court because his privacy rights’ were violated stemming from an alleged sexual assault offense in 1993.

Both sides agree that Gonzaga did in fact violate Ru Paster’s rights under FERPA, but have widely different claims concerning Paster’s right to sue for damages under the law.

Beth Brinkmann, defense attorney for Paster, argued last week that because the former Gonzaga student was denied a teaching certificate from the state of Washington in 1994 on the basis of unsubstantiated rumors that he sexually assaulted “Jane Doe,” another former student, he should be allowed to sue the university in civil court.

“Congress intended to give parents a right to their children’s records,” Brinkmann said. “The question is not if the girl was assaulted.The question here is whether or not someone whose rights have been violated has the right to go to court about it.”

FERPA was passed into law in 1974 and was instated to protect students and public universities from releasing information about a student without written consent from that student. FERPA allows schools and universities to release very general information about a student only in emergency situations.

John Roberts, attorney for Gonzaga University, had less to say during the hearing. Appearing confident in his case, Roberts said, “We’re glad it’s in the court’s hands. The Justices were obviously very prepared for the arguments. They asked both sides very tough questions and we await their decision.”

The Justices and lawyers spent the hour-long session jarring over the congressional statute that passed the privacy act. Both sides agree that Gonzaga violated FERPA, but the question remains: how to punish the school.

Roberts said that a public school violating a law should be subject to no more than a loss of federal funds. Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor agreed.

“The remedy is withholding of funds. I don’t see how you can extrapolate from that a private cause of action,” O’Connor said.

Following his graduation from Gonzaga in 1994, Paster applied for a teaching certificate in the state of Washington. Roberta League, a teaching certificate specialist for Gonzaga, advised Dr. Susan Kyle, Gonzaga’s director of field experience for student teachers, to deny Paster’s application after conducting an investigation into an alleged sexual assault. Kyle refused to sign the moral character affidavit required to attain a teaching job in the state.

Paster sued Gonzaga in state court for defamation, negligence, breach of educational contract and invasion of privacy. He also sought damages for Gonzaga’s violation of rights granted by the FERPA under the Federal Civil Rights Act.

On April 1, 1997 Paster was awarded $1.1 million by the Washington State Court. That decision was reversed by the Washington Court of Appeals after an appeal by the university. The Washington State Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling, stating that Paster’s rights were violated.

The ruling said, “Substantial evidence supports a determination that Gonzaga had a “policy or practice” of disclosing personally identifiable information contained in education records in violation of FERPA.”

The question was then whether or not Paster could press charges against Gonzaga under the Federal Civil Rights Act. According to the Washington State Supreme Court’s ruling, in order to determine whether a particular statutory provision gives rise to a federal right, “a court must examine the following three factors: (1) whether Congress intended the provision in question to benefit the plaintiff; (2) whether the right protected by the statute is so ‘vague and amorphous’ that its enforcement would strain judicial competence; and (3) whether the statute imposes a binding obligation on the states.”

Based on these standards, the court ruled that Paster was legally allowed to sue for damages under the Federal Civil Rights Act, marking the first time that a student claimed damages for a violation of privacy rights.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to release their opinion in the case of Gonzaga University & League, Roberta v. Doe, John in June of 2002.

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