The rules governing access to and release of educational records are generally found in two statutes, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA). Although the two statutes are similar, it is important for school districts to consult both laws when analyzing data questions—particularly those involving parental rights.
Q: Who are the “parents” for purposes of accessing educational data?
A: FERPA and MGDPA define the term “parent” as a parent of a student and includes a natural parent, guardian, or an individual acting as a parent in the absence of a parent or guardian.
Q: What rights do parents have to access educational data after a student reaches 18 years of age?
A: Under the MGDPA and FERPA, a student becomes the “parent” for data practices purposes upon reaching 18 years of age. This means the rights of access and control over educational records transfer from the parents to the student. The student acquires the authority to determine what data the school district may release and to whom it may be disclosed.
This authority, however, does not necessarily allow a student aged 18 or older to prevent the parents from continuing to receive educational data. Under FERPA, school districts may still release educational data to parents if the student is a “dependent.” If either parent claims the student as a dependent on the parent’s most recent income tax form, a school may disclose the student’s educational records to either parent without the eligible student’s consent.
Q: Is there any educational data to which a student may prevent parental access?
A: Yes. The MGDPA permits a student to deny parents access to certain “student health data,” which includes data concerning immunizations, notations of special physical or mental problems and records of school nurses. A school district must withhold student health data from parents upon the student’s request if it determines that doing so “would be in the best interests” of the student. This provision applies to all students—even minors.
Q: Is there any educational data to which a student may not access?
A: Yes. The MGDPA does not allow a student to access private data concerning the parents’ financial records and statements or any information contained therein.
Q: What are the data access rights of divorced or noncustodial parents?
A: Upon request, a noncustodial parent has the right of access to, and to receive copies of, school records and information, to attend conferences, and to be informed about the child’s welfare, educational progress and status unless there is a court order or other legal reason prohibiting it. However, a school is not required to hold a separate conference for each parent.
In a divorce, separation, or custody proceeding, the court generally grants each parent the right of access to and to receive copies of school records and other important records and information about the minor child. Each parent has the right to be informed by school officials about the child’s welfare, educational progress and status, and to attend school and parent/teacher conferences unless the court specifically finds that such access would not be in the child’s best interest.
Q: May one parent block another parent’s access to educational data?
A: No. Schools must presume that both parents have the authority to access data and must afford both parents their full rights. A school district may deny a parent access rights only if it has been provided with evidence that there is a state law or court order prohibiting a parent from accessing the child’s educational data.
Q: What data access rights do biological parents who have never married have?
A: If a biological mother and father were not married at the time a child was conceived or born and there has been no legal determination establishing the paternity of the biological father, the biological mother has “sole custody”—legal and physical—until a “temporary or permanent order is entered granting custody to another.” Consequently, unlike the general situation where a noncustodial parent has equal access to the child’s educational data, in this situation, the law does not consider the biological father to be a “parent” until such a legal determination is made.
Q: What data access rights do stepparents have?
A: Stepparents are usually not “parents” for purposes of data practices unless a formal adoption has occurred. Thus, stepparents will need to get a signed release from the student’s parent in order to access educational data. The same is generally true for other family members, including siblings and grandparents.
This article is intended to provide general information with commentary. It should not be relied on as legal advice. If required, legal advice regarding this topic should be obtained from district legal counsel.
Greg Madsen is an attorney and shareholder at Kennedy & Graven, Chartered, whose practice includes all aspects of education law, and is certified by the Minnesota State Bar Association as a Labor and Employment Law Specialist. For more information, please contact him at (612) 337-9305 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Gregory S. Madsen (2023). Used by permission.