By Dennis Hetzel, Executive Director
The Columbus Dispatch has done some exceptional reporting on the use of seclusion rooms to discipline students or handle other student situations in Ohio schools and the lack of accountability or guidelines.
In response, the state Board of Education adopted first-ever rules for how schools should make use of these rooms and report on their use. Unfortunately, as drafted, the rules could lead many school superintendents to conclude that all records would be confidential. This is particularly ironic because it was the use of records that helped The Dispatch disclose questionable practices.
After the Dispatch raised the issue in stories and editorials, I wrote a letter on behalf of both ONA and the Ohio Coalition for Open Government urging the Ohio Dept. of Education and the state board to adopt rules that make it clear that these records should be open. We pointed out that redaction, not complete closure, is the answer when redaction will prevent identification of students as prohibited by federal FERPA guidelines.
FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) is turning out to the be the new HIPAA as an excuse for public officials to block access to information, but that’s a larger topic for another day.
As a result of our efforts, the state board removed the word “confidential” from the opening sentence of the new guidelines. That change, combined with the attention the access issue has received, may help avoid denials or expensive court battles. The ODE did not respond to our suggestion that districts create a log of seclusion room activity that would be a public record.