Officials of Washington area school systems claim that a federal privacy law prevents them from releasing to the press the names of students who have made straight A's.
The statute, enacted in 1974, was designed to keep personal information in school records from being released without the consent of parents. It was sponsored by then-senator James L. Buckley (Cons.-N.Y.).
Buckley, reached in New York yesterday, sighed sadly and said that he had never intended the legislation to be used to suppress the honor roll. He added that this was not the first time the law had been misinterpreted.
It frankly never occurred to me that people would interpret it to exclude the height and weight of (student) football players from publication, but that has happened in some places. I would put this in the same category."
Officials of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, the federal agency charged with enforcing the Buckley measure, differed somewhat in their interpretations of the law. One said it would permit publication of the straight-A list at the discretion of a school board, after the board had followed certain procedures, such as giving public notice to parents once a year.
Another said the legislation allows the release of an honor roll, but without specific grades, and only after a board has followed the procedures.
The issue came up after a Washington Post editor asked D.C. school staff members for a list of straight-A students to be published periodically in The Post's District Weekly.
The staff prepared the list but George Margolies, legal counsel to school superintendent Vincent E. Reed, ruled that the law forbade its release. Inquiries in other school jurisdictions revealed similar interpretations of the law but varying degrees of enthusiasm about the legal restrictions.
Reed said he thinks it is a good idea to keep the honor roll secret because the publicity might subject the top students to "harassment" and their less-accomplished classmates to the discomforts of peer pressure.
"I think that just printing the number of youngsters who made A's is very positive news," Reed told a reporter. "Given the fact there may be damage and harrassment to the students, why would anybody want to print (the names)? Even you?"
The secret D.C. list names 137 senior high school students who made straight A's, out of a total of 23,707 and 16 ninth graders out of a total of 8,000 to 8,500, according to Gloria T. Adams, head of the school system's communication office.
Her staff also compiled a list of students who made all A's or B's: 937 senior high students and 318 ninth graders.
A spokeswoman for the Montgomery County school system took a dimmer view of the situation, observing, "Here is a case of a newspaper actually wanting to print something nice about the schools, and the government bureaucracy is preventing them."
School officials in Fairfax and Prince George's counties said their interpretation permits the release of honor lists, though without mention of individual grades. An Arlington County school official said that schools there will be able to release honor rolls without individual parental consent beginning in September.
"This does cause us a good deal of trouble. We've spent a good part of this working it out," the Arlington official said. Arlington officials have been sending out blank forms to 17,000 students' homes for consent to release information, "and of course we don't get them all back." After September, only those who withhold consent will be asked to sign forms, the official said.
Reed said, "There are a number of parents and board members who will take up the torch" of confidentiality in order to protect the children from commercial companies who would bombard them with advertisement.
"Some students are shy; they feel the peer pressure; maybe their classmates got As and they only got Bs," Margolies added. "Some might even have lied about their grades."
Adams, of the D.C. schools office of communications, expressed some dismay when word came from Margolies' office on Wednesday that she could not release the list. Her staff had promised it to The Post some weeks earlier and had arranged to turn it over to a reporter that day.
"I had just assumed it would be handled the same way as the announcement of National Merit Scholarship winners and other honors," she said.