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Staff File Photo / A building at the Hamilton County Schools central office on Hickory Valley Road is pictured.

A Chattanooga man's request for information about all 46,000-plus students in Hamilton County public schools Thursday spread faster than gossip.

Parents first learned about the request when district officials informed them via email they were compelled by law to release the information, then later were told the information would not be released until all legal options were exhausted. Finally, the man who sought the information withdrew his request.

But many parents were taken aback. They burned up the phones of school officials and elected leaders and took to social media to vent their confusion and anger. It was the perfect media talker.

On Friday, questions lingered about whether such a request was proper, whether anything could be done about such requests or whether the issue was a bit of a tempest in a teapot.

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said everyone involved needed to "take the temperature down" and "look at the whole picture."

Much of the data requested is public information and is routinely given in response to requests made to schools and school districts.

"In my view," Fisher said, "they probably have given out full directory information before and probably have not notified parents."

However, she said she is sympathetic to parents because "you have to be careful."

A precedent may have been set in 2017 when the state sued the Nashville school district because it would not release directory information (guardians' first and last names, address, phone number and email, school where children are enrolled and their grade level) to charter school operators who wanted to use it for recruitment. In the end, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said releasing such information doesn't violate federal student privacy law and, rather, is "entirely consistent with it."

Scott Bennett, attorney for the Hamilton County Board of Education, seemed to acknowledge as much in an email to state Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, who had sought guidance on the information request by sending a separate email to state Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

"[T]he Tennessee Public Records Act generally makes the records of any local governmental entity open to the public," he wrote. "While there is an exception for student records, there is also an exception to that exception for a student's contact information.

"Additionally, FERPA [the Family Education Records and Privacy Act] treats still more information as so-called directory information and provides that this information may be disclosed for routine purposes. FERPA's definition of directory information is extremely broad.

"Read together," he wrote, "... a lot of information that parents probably assume is private [is] open to a member of the public who asks the right questions. Most of the time, the breadth of this law is good for students. It allows schools to release information that acknowledges academic and athletic accomplishments. It allows schools to circulate information on vocational and scholarship opportunities. The problem arises ... when someone would use the information for another purpose."

Brendan Jennings, who requested the information, told local media he wanted the data to help parents network with each other and sought no personal information on the students.

However, numerous ways for parents to interact already exist. And parents can opt out of their information being given out anyway.

Bennett said the Board of Education will be revising its FERPA policy extensively to limit what is directory information and how it may be used.

Fisher didn't think much of that fix.

"I don't know that that's any better," she said. "Then you're at the mercy of the school board — what[ever policy] they like."

Bennett also believes amending Tennessee law TCA 10-7-504(a)(4) would help. His update would read: "Student records are confidential. Notwithstanding this confidentiality, and accept to the extent necessary to comply with a court order or other express requirements of this section, local boards of education are authorized, but not required, to release a student's directory information, as that term is defined by the Family Education Records and Privacy Act, in accordance with the conditions and limitations set forth in local board policy."

Meanwhile, Smith said the debate "is a good exercise in seeing what needs to be fixed."

She doesn't know if Bennett's change is the right solution but said if someone "comes up with good language that fixes the problem but does not go so far to harm transparency," she would sponsor it or be an early signatory.

Such dilemmas are not easy to navigate; transparency and access to public records must be weighed against the safety of students, Smith said. Similar concerns are being debated in areas of health care and, particularly, vaccines, she said.

In this case, the request for information about every Hamilton County public school student appears more alarming than dangerous, and outsized because it came one from one person whose intent was unclear. Some of that information used to be found in telephone books, for goodness sake.

Going forward, we hope if any action is taken, it is measured carefully. We shouldn't overreact to a problem that may not be a problem after all.

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