The Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (PAC) issued a non-binding opinion that provides guidance on what constitutes a school student record as provided in the Illinois School Student Records Act (ISSRA) and would therefore be exempt from disclosure pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
In the opinion, a reporter submitted a FOIA request to a school district, seeking among other things, a list of students who were disciplined with suspension from team or group activities for violating the athletic department and/or districtwide student drug and alcohol abuse policies for certain school years, including the age, grade level, number of days suspended, and the names of the teams and/or groups from which students were suspended. The school district withheld the responsive records, asserting that the records are exempt from disclosure as school student records, as defined in ISSRA. The requestor appealed this decision, asserting that information such as a student’s team or activity, grade level, and age is not exempt from disclosure as a school student record. The requestor also asserted that ISSRA does not prohibit the release of information regarding students who have graduated. The school district argued that the redaction of student names, identification numbers, and birth dates would not protect the students’ confidentiality because the other responsive information in the spreadsheets would enable identification of individual students. Indeed, the only way to ensure that no student would be identified would be to redact virtually all substantive information which would render the information meaningless to the requestor. The school district also reiterated that ISSRA’s prohibition against the release of school student records applies to former as well as current students.
The PAC agreed with the school district that individual students could be identified by disclosure of the information requested. Specifically, the spreadsheets “identify students by specific characteristics that distinguish them from other students who were on the same team or in the same organization during a given school year.” The PAC stated that a school district parent could recall which student from a particular sport had been suspended during a given school year, thereby rendering the student individually identified. Accordingly, ISSRA prohibited the release of the requested information. The PAC determined that this prohibition applies with regard to student records for both current and previously enrolled students.