COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) — The school records of the deceased Dayton mass shooter who killed nine people last year cannot be released to the media, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In a 6-1 decision, the state’s top court ruled that Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local School District is not allowed under state law to turn over the personal records of Connor Betts, the gunman who killed nine and injured 27 in Dayton in August 2019.
Justice Melody J. Stewart wrote for the majority, finding that the Ohio General Assembly did not expressly permit the release of records for students who died without giving consent.
The decision upholds a state appeals court ruling prohibiting the release of the records to news outlets wanting to explore whether there had been any warning signs in Betts’ past, and whether those red flags had been properly addressed.
“The Second District Court of Appeals found that…a provision of the Ohio Student Privacy Act prohibits disclosure of such records without the written consent of the adult former student, with no exception for the former student’s death,” Stewart wrote. “Because the OSPA unambiguously forbids disclosure of the requested records, we affirm.”
Betts graduated from Bellbrook High School in 2013. He was 24 years old when police killed him at the scene of the shooting spree in a Dayton entertainment district.
Several journalists from various news outlets filed public records requests with the Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local School District. The district denied the requests, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the Ohio Student Privacy Act.
News organizations including CNN, the Associated Press and Cox Media Group – owner of the Dayton Daily News and WHIO-TV in Dayton – sought a writ of mandamus to compel the school district to produce Betts’ student records, but the Second District court denied that request, prompting an appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court.
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office and other news outlets filed an amicus brief in support of the media companies, arguing the privacy laws do not protect the records of former students who died as adults.
But the justices disagreed Thursday.
“The records of a person who attended a public school can be disclosed only with the consent of the student, if the student is 18 years of age or older,” Stewart wrote. “If the student is deceased, he is no longer available to grant consent.”
As the lone voice against the majority, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote a dissenting opinion saying the Ohio Student Privacy Act only limits the release of “personally identifiable information other than directory information concerning any student attending a public school.”
“It does not prohibit a public school from releasing the records of a former student who is deceased and therefore not currently ‘attending’ that school,” Kennedy wrote. “The General Assembly’s use of the word ‘attending’ is not susceptible to both a present- and past-tense interpretation. For this reason, the plain language of [the law] does not prohibit a school district from releasing student records pertaining to a deceased former student.”
Stewart rejected Kennedy’s argument regarding the statutory language in her majority opinion.
“The language does not mean that the student to whom the information pertains must be presently attending the public school. Rather, the ‘any student attending a public school’ language speaks to whether the information at issue relates to a student’s attendance at a public school, regardless of the student’s status at the time the information is requested,” she wrote.
The judge further pointed to the fact that the Ohio Student Privacy Act was enacted to bring the state’s schools into compliance with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which she wrote “grants funding only to those educational institutions that abide by FERPA’s requirements for protecting the privacy of students.”
Stewart concluded that any exceptions to the law needed to be made by state lawmakers.
“While there might be policy reasons to carve out an exception to [the law’s] protections for situations like the one before us in this case, the decision is not ours to make,” she wrote.
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