In a case pertaining to an Open Public Records Act request for access to student records, the state Appellate Division ruled on Oct. 16 that OPRA requesters were entitled to redacted records of special education students only if the requesters were bona fide researchers, or if they obtained a court order for release of the records.

The NJSBA appeared in these matters as amicus curiae in support of the school districts’ denial of plaintiffs’ requests of student records, including special education related documents.

In the published opinion of four consolidated appeals, the court described the intersection between the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the New Jersey Pupil Records Act (NJPRA).  The  NJSBA argued that the three referenced laws, read together (in pari materia), exempt student records from disclosure to third parties unless the parent, guardian or adult student consent to disclosure; the requester is an enumerated party as provided for in the NJPRA; or a court orders disclosure pursuant to a hearing.

The Camden City district, Hillsborough Twp. Board of Education, Parsippany-Troy Hills Twp. district and Cherry Hill Board of Education had previously denied the respective plaintiffs’ claims for student records, based upon the exemption referenced in OPRA and the protections set forth in FERPA and NJPRA. In making its determination, the appeals court said: “we hold that the respective plaintiffs in the Hillsborough, Parsippany-Troy Hills, and Cherry Hill cases are entitled to appropriately-redacted copies of the requested records, provided that on remand those plaintiffs either: (1) establish they have the status of “[b]ona fide researcher[s]” within the intended scope of N.J.A.C. 6A:32-7.5(e)(16); or (2) obtain from the Law Division a court order authorizing such access pursuant to N.J.A.C. 6A:32-7.5(e)(15). In either event, the school districts shall not turn over the redacted records until they first provide reasonable advance notice to each affected student’s parents or guardians.”

The text of the decision is available online.

Regarding Camden, the court noted that the plaintiff was entitled to request her own child’s records, but was not entitled to receive other students’ records.

The court remanded the four cases to the Camden vicinage for a hearing pursuant to its decision; it did not retain jurisdiction. Anticipating that one or more of the plaintiffs may file an appeal with the New Jersey Supreme Court, the court stayed the decision for 30 days.

Currently there are more than a dozen similar cases pending before the appellate division or trial courts.

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