A&A: School Boards, Closed Sessions, and Student Files

Q: I have learned that our school board viewed files of a student in closed session. I learned that the file contains information about the student’s behavior. My further question is: Is there something in law that allows the board to meet in closed session when reviewing such materials? They regularly meet in closed session to deal with student expulsions.

A: For the purposes of responding to your question, we assume that the school district gave proper notice of its intent to consider the appeal of the denial of the transfer on a posted agenda, but that it did not give specific advance notice of its intent to discuss any part of the matter in closed session.  As long as the item was adequately described on the agenda, the Brown Act requires the school district to disclose, in the open meeting, “the item or items to be discussed in the closed session.”  Cal. Gov. Code Sec. 54957.7.  Nothing in that section “shall require or authorize a disclosure of information prohibited by state or federal law.”  Id.  While the authority to conduct a closed session is to be construed narrowly, the Brown Act specifically allows for a closed session if authorized by “any provision of the Education Code pertaining to school districts.” Cal. Gov. Code Sec. 54962.

Generally speaking, records pertaining to a student are presumptively confidential, and cannot be disclosed without parental consent or a court order. See Cal. Educ. Code Sec. 49073.  The California Education Code establishes that only so-called “directory information” about a pupil may be made publicly available, so long as notice is given at least annually of the types of information to be released, and parents are given an opportunity to object.  Id.  “Directory information” includes such basic information as a student’s name, address, telephone number, participation in officially recognized activities and sports, and dates of attendance.  Cal. Educ. Code Sec. 49061.

Beyond basic “directory information,” records pertaining to a student are not to be disclosed without parental consent or a court order, except under limited circumstances not present here.  See, e.g., Cal. Educ. Code Sec. 49076 (among other things, allowing for disclosure to probation officer or district attorney for purposes of conducting a criminal investigation, or for certain purposes related to a legitimate educational interest.)  Based on the facts available to us, it would appear that the School District’s decision to hold a closed session to discuss non-“directory information” about a particular student was proper, since that information is not to be disclosed without parental consent or a court order.