How does the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) affect Washington family law cases?

The Intersection of FERPA and Washington Family Law Cases

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law enacted in 1974, is designed to protect the privacy of students' education records. While FERPA's primary focus is on the educational context, it inevitably intersects with various areas of law, including family law. In Washington State, as in others, FERPA can have significant implications for family law cases, particularly those involving the custody and welfare of children.

Understanding FERPA

FERPA grants parents certain rights with respect to their children's education records. These rights transfer to the student when they reach 18 years of age or attend a school beyond the high school level. Under FERPA, schools must have written permission from the parent or eligible student to release any information from a student's education record.

FERPA in Custody Disputes

In custody disputes, FERPA's implications become particularly pronounced. For instance, non-custodial parents often seek access to their children's school records. Under FERPA, these parents retain their rights to access the records unless there is a court order stating otherwise. This means that even if one parent has sole custody, the other parent generally still has the right to view the child's educational records.

However, complications can arise if a non-custodial parent has been denied access to their child by a court order. In such cases, schools must be careful not to violate FERPA by inadvertently sharing information with a parent who has been legally restricted from accessing it.

FERPA and Child Protection Cases

In cases involving child protection or welfare checks, FERPA plays a pivotal role as well. Child Protective Services (CPS) and other agencies may need access to a child's school records to perform a thorough investigation. While FERPA generally requires parental consent for record releases, there is an exception for certain law enforcement inquiries and emergency situations where the information is necessary to protect the health or safety of students or other individuals.

FERPA Compliance Challenges

Schools and educational institutions face challenges in maintaining compliance with FERPA while also respecting court orders and legal proceedings associated with family law cases. They must navigate complex legal terrain, ensuring they do not improperly disclose information that could jeopardize student privacy or violate legal mandates.

A historical reference that underscores the complexity of FERPA in relation to family law is the case of Owasso Independent School District v. Falvo, where the Supreme Court ruled on issues related to student privacy. Although not directly related to family law, this landmark case illustrates the nuanced considerations involved in interpreting FERPA's reach and limitations.

Conclusion

FERPA affects Washington family law cases by establishing boundaries for access to educational records during custody disputes and other legal proceedings that involve children's welfare. Legal professionals in Washington must be diligent in understanding both federal and state laws as they pertain to educational records to ensure proper handling of sensitive information within family law contexts.