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School Settlements With Families Face Disclosure

BOSTON (CN) - A Massachusetts school district was half-right in withholding certain settlement records requested by a resident, but it can also redact personal details to comply with public-access rights, the state Supreme Court ruled.

The dispute stems from an open-records request that Michael Champa filed with the Weston School District in 2012, seeking records from the last five years regarding how Weston settled claims against it by the families of students with special needs.

Parents of students with disabilities sometimes contest the amount of funding the school district allots for their child's needs, but Weston contended that the settlements it reaches with these parents are private education records, not public records subject to disclosure.

Superior Court Judge Angel Kelley Brown shot the school district down, but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court vacated that decision on Friday.

Whereas Brown found that the settlement agreements are public records and do not fall under the student-record exemption in the Massachusetts student-records law and the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the high court found Brown's statutory interpretation too narrow.

Brown said the exemption applies only to documents directly related to a student's academic progress, but Friday's ruling says both the student record and private information exemptions are applicable to settlement documents.

The court did find that Brown got it right in saying that Weston should be able to redact identifying information to shield families' privacy exemption.

"Like FERPA, the Massachusetts student records law and regulations protect student records only as they pertain to certain information - not entire documents," Associate Justice Margot Botsford wrote for the seven-member court. "Accordingly, under the public records law, any 'segregable portion' of the record must be disclosed, if with the redaction it independently is a public record."

Though it took a different route than Brown had to reach the same conclusion, the Supreme Judicial Court said redactions would make Weston's documents acceptable for release.

"Notably, once personally identifiable information is redacted, the financial terms of such agreements, which necessarily reflect the use of public monies, partially or fully, to pay for out-of-district placements, do not constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy; indeed, the public has a right to know the financial terms of these agreements," Botsford wrote.

The court vacated Brown's ruling and called for her to sort out the specific redaction requirements on remand.

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