By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 5, 2006
New accusations were made against the City of Manassas over its "anti-crowding" efforts, as four Hispanic families filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education last week alleging that school officials illegally turned over their children's records to city zoning inspectors without parental notification.
The complaints raise the possibility of more costly litigation for the city in defense of its attempts to curb the number of residents who can share a dwelling through stricter enforcement of its zoning laws. Manassas is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for allegedly discriminating against Hispanic families in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, executive director of the District-based Equal Rights Center, said his organization learned of the school records disclosure while investigating fair housing complaints against the city. Kahn said the records showed up in e-mail exchanges between city staff members that were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
"None of the parents were aware that the city was secretly filing overcrowding complaints based on information in the children's student record," Kahn said. "It's very ugly. And it's very illegal."
Manassas city and public school officials declined to comment, saying they had yet to receive the complaint, filed Thursday.
Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, schools that receive federal funds generally cannot reveal student records without parental permission. Schools may disclose "directory" information, such as students' address, unless parents request otherwise, typically through an annual permission form distributed at the start of each school year.
The school's release of student records extended well beyond directory-level information, said Gus B. Bauman, an attorney with Beveridge & Diamond who is representing the families.
"It's crystal clear from the record that they are in clear violation of federal law," Bauman said. "I've never seen anything like this."
"When we informed the families and the parents that this was going on, they were shocked," he said. "Frankly, any parent with children in the public school system should be appalled that this is going on."
Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act complaints are processed by the Department of Education's family policy compliance office, which determines whether an investigation is warranted.
"In the vast majority of cases, we're able to get [schools] to come into compliance with the law short of doing anything drastic," said James Bradshaw, a spokesman for the Department of Education.