Law & Courts

Tenn. District Suspends Honor-Roll Recognition

By Michelle Galley — February 04, 2004 3 min read
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For the time being, a student may make the honor roll in Nashville, Tenn., but dwell there in obscurity.

The Nashville school district has temporarily halted schools’ posting of the names of students who earned the recognition until officials iron out privacy issues. The prohibition has prompted schools statewide to examine a law dating back at least a decade.

Concern about the district’s honor-roll system arose last month, when two parents complained that some students might feel embarrassed by not achieving the distinction, according to Craig Owensby, a spokesman for the 70,000-student system. While investigating the complaint, district administrators learned from their lawyers that an honor-roll student’s name can be posted only if his or her parent previously signed a permission slip.

As a result, all honor-roll postings were curbed, and district officials scrambled to pass out the necessary forms to all parents in the district, Mr. Owensby said last week. “We’ve been distributing permission forms for over a week,” he said.

The district’s action does not address parents’ concerns about student embarrassment, Mr. Owensby acknowledged, but the complaint did draw attention to the state law requiring parental permission.

Events Canceled

Meanwhile, two schools have canceled assemblies at which administrators planned to congratulate students on their academic performance.

The dust-up also raised the ire of some parents, who contended that requiring parents to sign permission slips for the honor roll was taking student privacy laws too far, according to the Associated Press.

Both the honor-roll recognition and the academic assemblies will be in full swing again by the beginning of the next marking period next month, Mr. Owensby said. “We have every intention of rewarding students who do well.”

Having their names posted on an honor roll, he said, “is a powerful incentive for some students.”

Federal Law Differs

At the beginning of each school year, parents of children attending the Nashville schools are routinely asked to sign waivers allowing images of their children to be released and are given information about the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. The federal law was designed to protect student information from unauthorized disclosure.

But parents had not been asked to give permission for their children to be named as honor-roll students, Mr. Owensby said.

As a result of the flap in Nashville, other districts in Tennessee have been examining their honor-roll policies. Schools are looking for clarification from the state, according to Kim Karesh, a spokeswoman for the state education department.

The state law regarding permission slips for the honor roll has been on the books for at least the past 10 years, she said. But, Ms. Karesh added, she could not gauge compliance. “It is a complaint-driven system,” she said. “Not one we police.”

State law in Tennessee is stricter than FERPA. Student honors, annual yearbooks, athletic participation, and playbills for school performances are all examples of “directory information” that is exempt under the federal law.

“We’re so used to federal law trumping everything,” said Randall Bennett, the assistant executive director and legal counsel for the Tennessee School Boards Association. “Most everyone took the position that FERPA was the controlling law.”

Still, correcting the situation should not be difficult, he said. “Each fall, we have parents sign so many slips, we can certainly include one about the honor roll.”

Even though FERPA allows schools to release honor-roll information, districts around the country should consider following Nashville’s lead, said Charles J. Russo, an education and law professor at the University of Dayton, in Ohio. “One of the things that education law needs to be is proactive, to anticipate areas that could give rise to litigation and controversy,” he said.

Nashville school officials are also considering changes in how and when they get parental permission for next school year, Mr. Owensby said. “The bottom line of the whole situation is that we want to be sure we are in compliance with state law.”

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