A Florida appellate court on Thursday ruled that the identities of students who submit complaints about teachers to public schools -- including colleges and universities -- are a matter of public record, and must be disclosed to citizens, the Associated Press reports.
Former Santa Fe College math instructor Darnell Rhea believes the school didn't his semester-to-semester contract for part-time teaching at two campuses because a student complaint email alleged that Rhea made humiliating remarks in class, and that his teaching methods were unorthodox. Rhea said he believed the email was sent by a student who had only attended one class.
The 70-year-old retired public school teacher successfully argued in front of a three-judge panel that the student’s name is not covered by state and federal laws granting confidentiality to education records because such complaints don’t directly relate to students.
The panel sided with Rhea, ruling that Santa Fe College must release the name of the student who sent the email.
Barbara Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, said the ruling is significant because courts in some states have interpreted the federal Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act differently.
FERPA does not prohibit the disclosure of education records, but it withholds federal funding from schools that have a policy or practice of permitting the disclosure of records "directly related to a student,” the AP reports.
According to District Judge Stephanie Ray, such complaints relate to teachers, but only tangentially to the students who submit them.
The opinion reversed a decision by Circuit Judge Victor Hulsander, who, according to the appellate panel, had erroneously ruled that the student’s identity was a confidential education record, CBS12 News reports. The college had released the email in question to Rhea, but the student’s name was withheld.
The case will return to Hulsander for further action, but Rhea has said he is not interested in getting his job back or any damages.
Matt Williams, vice president of the New Faculty Majority, a group that represents those off the tenure track, told Inside Higher Ed he was pleased to hear Rhea had won the case. "If your employment is on the line, you have to be able to defend yourself," he said, adding that he has heard from many non-tenure-track faculty members that their contracts weren't renewed after a student or two sent in an anonymous complaint.
Santa Fe College has denied the complaint was the reason Rhea’s contract was not renewed.