A mother is informed that he son must be transferred to a class for mentally retarded students, but is told she cannot see the school records documenting the need for it. A father discovers that his son's school record contains teachers' observations that he was "strangely introspective" at one point, "unnaturally interested in girls" at another, and the holder of "peculiar political ideas" at the age of 12. A high school junior is summarily suspended on the spot for being present during a schoolyard disturbance, even though he was not directly involved.
Until recently, incidents such as these were more common than educators and school administrators like to admit. School systems had over the years evolved their own ideas on how best to serve the interests of students and their parents. Practices such as not allowing students or parents to see certain test results were developed with perfectly good intentions. They were based on the latest in educational theories, and had the backing of contemporary interpretations of how the law applied to rights in the school.
The result of this, according to Dr. William Rioux, a senior associate of the National Committee for Citizens in Education, was that "up until very recently, the conventional wisdom, which carried a lot of force, was such that school boards were immune from suits, that teachers were protected to a very large extent in their actions with students, and so on, so that there was a very widespread feeling among parents and students that they had very few rights."
By the late 1960's, however, the situation began to change as parents and pupils started to assert their rights. For example, in what Rioux and other proponents of educational rights call a "landmark" decision, the United States Supreme Court overturned law and custom ("children should be seen and not heard") when in the 1969 case of Tinker vs. Des Moines it ruled that students have a right to wear black armbands to protest the Viet Nam war. In doing so, the court coined the battle slogan of students rights activists, that "students do no shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate."
The Supreme Court upheld another constitutional right in the 1971 case of Goss vs. Lopez. The court ruled that pupils are entitled under due process of the law to a hearing before being subjected to serious disciplinary procedures, such as suspension or expulsion.
Even hair length, which took on a symbolic meaning during the war years, was subject to judicial contention. In a series of conflicting decisions during the early 1970's, some federal courts overturned school regulations against long hair, while others upheld them, or as the Supreme Court did, refused to hear these cases.
Federal legislation has also greatly expanded the guarantees of educational rights. When a 1969 study of school recordkeeping practices found deficiencies were widespread, it concluded that there was a "serious threat to individual privacy in the United States" from these deficiencies. Specifically, the study found that in a typical public school system: detailed personal information about pupils and parents was collected without their consent; parents had little knowledge of the types of information kept and how it was used; parents and students had very limited access to this information and virtually no opportunity to correct false information, while outside agencies (such as the FBI and employers) could often get it easily.
In 1974 Congress passed the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (commonly called the Buckley Amendment). The law, which applies to all schools receiving federal funding for education, insures parent's rights to see their chilren's records, and protects the confidentiality of those records. It also provides procedures for correcting or challenging erroneous entries.
Despite predictions that the law would be an unmanageable burden on schools, most have been attempting to comply. A joint study of 169 local school systems released last September by the National Committee for Citizens in Education, the National Council of Jewish Women and the National Urban League showed that 84 percent had developed new recordkeeping policies since the law was passed. Written consent was being obtained by 95 percent before releasing information to outside agencies, and 90 percent say they have informed parents of their rights.
Even private schools, which do not have to follow requirements of the Buckley Amendment unless they receive federal money (and very few do) are moving toward compliance with the law. A. Harris Grossman, assistant to the President of the Bullis School, said that he first learned of the Buckley Amendment provisions when he was informed by schools from which transcripts had been requested that a written authorization was required. He said the school promptly changed its procedures to comply.
The Sidwell Friends School is now in the process of developing a new written policy on recordkeeping.
"In general, we feel that the goals of the Buckley Amendment are admirable," siad Benjamin Shute, principal of the upper school. "Historically, our policy had been to not have records open to parents. However, I anticipate that these revisions will bring us within the spirit of the Buckley Amendment, if not word-for-word compliance."
Shute said that the exception to "word-for-word compliance" would probably be in the area of recommendations to colleges.
"Colleges say they're not getting the 'helpful' kinds of recommendations they need from schools under the Buckley Amendments," he said. The implication is that scholls are less likely to be frank in their students assessments if they know parents will be looking over their shoulders, and although this may make for rosier letters of recommendation, in the long run it could be detrimental to the student.
Shute said his impression was that other private schools are generally following this pattern of complying with the intent of the law and making exceptions only as necessary.
A court case initiated a month ago in Prince George's County indicates the potentially far-reaching effects of the Buckley Amendment. When the Washington Star and the campus newspaper, The Diamondback, ran detailed accounts of the academic difficulties of some University of Maryland basketball players, they filed a $72 million suit against the paper, alleging violation of their right to privacy under the Buckley Amendment. The suit does not name the university as a defendant, and does not claim that anyone from the university leaked the athletes' grades. However, as the students' lawyer Walter Madden contends, this case could "make it clear that grade averages, like medical information, are private."
Handicapped pupils, who have often had to make do with services provided as an after-thought rather than as an important priority, have seen their situation vastly improved in the past few years. In 1972 a federal court found that the Distrit of Columbia was excluding as many as 18,000 "exceptional" children - those that are mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, physically handicapped or having behavioral problems. It ordered the institution of due process procedures for classifying exceptional pupils. It also rejected a claim of inadequate funding for identifying that in such cases funds must be used equally for all children, including exceptional ones.
The federal law, Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, opened the door even wider. It requires that a "free appropriate public education" be provided to all handicapped children between the ages of 3 and 18 by next September. Each handicapped pupil must have an individualized written education plan, and it must be reviewed annually by parents, teacher and the school district. Emphasis must be placed on puting the child in as near normal an environment as possible. Called "mainstreaming", this means that regular classes in a school with appropriate support services are preferable to special classes, which are preferable to a special school, and so on.
"Educationally deprived" children are aided by Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. A pupil is eligible if he comes from a low-income family and has a below-average educational achievement, i.e., a fifth-grader reading at a third grade level.
The law requires that all parents of children eligible for Title I programs be given a role in the developing, implementing and evaluating of these programs. Each school and school district participating in the programs must form a Parents Advisory Council (PAC), with the majority of each composed of parents of Title I children.