NJ Court Allows Limited Disclosure of Disabled Student Records

The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court has cleared the way for advocacy organizations to gain access to redacted reports detailing settlement agreements and other student records related to services provided to disabled and special needs students. Under the court’s decision, organizations must establish that they are bona fide researchers or obtain a court order. NJ Court Allows Limited Disclosure of Disabled Student Records

Facts of the Case

The decision in L.R. v. Camden City Public School District arises out of several consolidated lawsuits filed by parents of New Jersey students and the Innisfree Foundation. In all of the cases, the plaintiffs sought copies of settlement agreements and records of the provision of special services to qualified students. The school districts, Cherry Hill, Hillsborough, Parsippany-Troy Hills, and Camden City, declined disclosure, largely citing statutory and regulatory provisions aimed to protect the privacy of student records.

The trial courts reached differing conclusions regarding the disclosure of the records. The judge in the Hillsborough case held that the plaintiff advocacy organization’s request must be disallowed under the regulations of the New Jersey Department of Education, N.J.A.C. 6A:32-7.1 to -7.8.  That ruling was consistent with a prior administrative decision of the Government Records Council (GRC) interpreting those regulations.  Conversely, the judges in the Cherry Hill and Parsippany-Troy Hills cases ruled that the applicable laws and regulations allow the plaintiff-requestors access to the records, provided that the disabled students’ personally identifiable information was redacted from them. Finally, the trial judge in the Camden City case dealt with the separate issues posed by a parent’s access to her own child’s records, “access logs” for those records, and other documents possessed by the school district that refer to her child. The judge ordered the school district to produce an unredacted copy of the child’s own records and access logs, but not other records.

Appellate Decision  

The Appellate Division held that the plaintiffs are entitled to redacted copies of the requested records, provided that on remand those plaintiffs either: (1) establish they have the status of “[b]ona fide researcher[s]” within the intended scope of N.J.A.C. 6A:32-7.5(e)(16); or (2) obtain from the Law Division a court order authorizing such access pursuant to N.J.A.C. 6A:32-7.5(e)(15).

In reaching its decision, the Appellate Division highlighted the potential research value of the records. “Such information could yield trends or practices that could inform policy-making, academic studies, grants, and other related endeavors,” Judge Jack Sabatino wrote.

At the same time, the appeals court also acknowledged the importance of protecting student privacy. The Appellate Division further held that school districts may not turn over the redacted records until they first provide reasonable advance notice to each affected student’s parents or guardians. As explained by the Court, “The parents and guardians must be afforded the opportunity to object and provide insight to the school district officials about what may comprise or reveal personally identifying information in their own child’s records before the redactions are finalized.”

Notably, the Appellate Division stayed its order for 30 days for the parties to file appeals with the Supreme Court of New Jersey. We will continue to track this important New Jersey special education case and post updates as they become available.

For more information about the court’s decision in L.R. v. Camden City Public School District or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.

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