The exchange of information about a student between school officials and law enforcement or judicial system personnel can be a powerful tool to ensure safety in our public schools and is necessary in certain situations to identify, assess, and address safety concerns in a timely manner.
To complete the exchange appropriately, information exchanges must comply with applicable state and federal laws. School districts are bound to the requirements of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) as outlined in district policy. Law enforcement or court personnel are bound by the state Youth Court Act. These statutes and policies protect the personal privacy of students and minors from improper disclosure of confidential information.
There are situations when disclosures are allowed by law. These exceptions to the privacy requirements are where school officials and law enforcement personnel can exchange information, maintain personal privacy and serve the community’s interest in protecting the safety and security of students and staff.
In accordance with Section 41-5-215(5), MCA, a school district may disclose, without parental or student consent, personally identifiable information from an education record of a pupil to the youth court and law enforcement authorities pertaining to violations of the Montana Youth Court Act or criminal laws by the pupil. The statute requires the court or law enforcement authorities receiving the information to certify in writing to the school district that the information will not be disclosed to any other party except as provided under state law without the prior consent of the parent or guardian of the pupil.
This state exception to FERPA authorizes a school district to release education records of a student who is being investigated by law enforcement for violations of the criminal code or Youth Court Act. This may include disciplinary, academic, or operational footage, records, or documents maintained by the school district that are related to the underlying alleged criminal conduct. This exception does not apply to students not under investigation such as witnesses or victims of an alleged crime.
Another FERPA exception is the law enforcement record process. A district may identify a law enforcement unit within the school district. Records created by the law enforcement unit are considered law enforcement records and are subject to standard FERPA guidelines. A designated law enforcement unit may identify conduct as being of interest to the law enforcement unit and maintain records related to the conduct. These records can then be exchanged with other law enforcement personnel. The establishment and designation of the law enforcement unit will be outlined in a school district’s FERPA policy.
If these exceptions do not apply, law enforcement personnel will be required to secure parental permission, a court-issued subpoena or other court order to access educational records protected by FERPA.
Information exchange also works in the other direction. In accordance with Section 41-5-215(3), MCA, the chief probation officer or other designee shall notify the chief administrator of a school district that the youth presently attends or has applied to attend of a youth's past or current drug use or criminal activity. Before notification can occur, either the probation officer must first either complete an investigation or file a petition in youth court alleging a violation of the state’s criminal code or the youth must have first admitted the allegation. Notification is also limited to circumstances where the acts alleged were against another youth and where the admitted activity has a bearing on the safety of children.
This notification requirement terminates upon the end of the youth court's supervision or the discharge of the youth by the department of corrections. During the notification period, the administrative officials of the school district may enforce school disciplinary procedures that existed at the time of the admission or adjudication. The information relied upon from the notification process may not be further disclosed and may not be made part of the student's permanent records. Finally, the information may not be used as a basis to refuse to educate a student if the refusal is inconsistent with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Another form of information exchange is through each county’s interdisciplinary child information and school safety team established by Section 52-2-211, MCA. This team consists of county-level representatives of the youth court, the county attorney, the department of public health and human services, the county superintendent of schools, the sheriff, the chief of any police force, the superintendents of public school districts, and the department of corrections. The purpose of the team is “to facilitate the exchange and sharing of information that one or more team members may be able to use in serving a child in the course of their professions and occupations, including but not limited to abused or neglected children, delinquent youth, and youth in need of intervention, and of information relating to issues of school safety.”
Unless prohibited by law, the team can receive records, including case notes, correspondence, evaluations, videotapes, and interviews on issues related to child abuse and neglect as noted in Section 41-3-205, MCA. The team can also review social, medical, and psychological records, youth assessment materials, predisposition studies, and supervision records of probationers in Youth Court matters in accordance with Section 41-5-215, MCA.
This exchange of information, both from schools to law enforcement and law enforcement to schools, can be completed in a responsible and legal fashion. By participating in this cooperative engagement, community leaders in the educational and judicial components of Montana’s local governments can protect personal privacy while addressing safety concerns.