(CN) – The Disability Law Center of Alaska can investigate complaints about past abuse of developmentally disabled students at an elementary school in Anchorage, the 9th Circuit ruled, even though the allegedly offending teacher and aide no longer work for the school.
In 2007 the advocacy agency received several complaints of student mistreatment at Lake Otis Elementary School in Anchorage. The center filed a class action against the Anchorage School District, seeking access to the contact information of the students’ guardians.
The district court dismissed the center’s complaint for lack of probable cause, saying there was “no indication of continuing potential for abuse and neglect since the teacher and teaching assistant provoking the complaints are no longer employed at the school.”
On appeal, the Anchorage-based appellate panel pointed out that the Development Disabilities Act allows an advocacy group to investigate past incidents of abuse and neglect, not just ongoing cases.
“The fact that the offending teacher and aide had been removed from the Lake Otis classroom did not defeat the Law Center’s showing of probable cause,” Judge Farris wrote.
The court also reversed the lower court’s ruling that federal law overrode the center’s authority to demand guardian contact information.
In cases of potential abuse or neglect, the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act allows for the disclosure of school records for legal purposes. An advocate does not have to prove “that abuse and neglect are ongoing or likely to recur,” Farris wrote.
“[T]he value in protecting vulnerable individuals outweighs the value in protecting against a small diminution in privacy,” the judge added.
And because the case focused on federal law, not state law, the court reversed an award of attorney fees to the school district.