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Members of the Utah House approved a bill on Tuesday that would exclude some school district records from the state's open records law.
Sponsored by West Valley City Republican Rep. Craig Hall, the bill clarifies that records governed by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, are exempt from GRAMA, Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act.
Hall said the bill is a response to a 2012 decision by the State Records Committee that granted The Salt Lake Tribune access to witness statements collected during an investigation of an alleged inappropriate relationship between a Cottonwood High School teacher and a student.
The records were redacted to protect the privacy of students, but Hall said the release of the records sets a precedent that could reduce the willingness of victims or witnesses to come forward in the future.
"It will protect the identity of the victim," Hall said of his bill. "It saves this person from the abuse and embarrassment of public disclosure of these details."
Federal law currently prohibits the public release of an individual student's educational records, such as test scores or other academic information.
But the law's definition of "educational record" does not include school-based law enforcement agencies, like the Granite School District Police Department, which investigated the Cottonwood High School case.
Granite School District argued the witness statements were not law enforcement records, because they were collected by district administrators as an employment procedure for the accused teacher, Granite spokesman Ben Horsley said.
"These similar statements created by students have long been considered protected, under FERPA, which is why we initially denied the request," Horsley said.
Hall said his intent is to limit media's and the public's access to sensitive law enforcement records, even when names and other identifiers are redacted, because the Cottonwood High School community was well aware of the individuals involved in the investigation.
He credited The Salt Lake Tribune for using discretion about what information to disclose in its reporting, but added that State Records Committee's decision makes the same records available to the general public.
"Anybody else who could have asked for the same records may not have used the same discretion," he said. But Salt Lake City Democratic Rep. Brian King said the bill was an overreaction to a single instance in which lawmakers disagreed with the records committee.
He said GRAMA, which assumes all government records are public unless specifically protected, should not be "tampered with lightly," and compared Hall's bill to a person tearing down their garage because they found a rat's nest inside.
"There are easier ways to deal with this process than to take all of FERPA records out of GRAMA," he said.
But Lehi Republican Rep. Jacob Anderegg, who regularly sponsors legislation related to student privacy, said the bill was necessary to avoid similar rulings by the State Records Committee in the future.
"This isn't a knee-jerk reaction," he said. "This is an instance where they got it wrong."
The bill was approved by the House in a 62-9 vote. It now moves to the Senate for consideration.