For those of you who are new to education law or are in a battle with your school district to make sure your disabled student is getting a “Free Appropriate Public Education”, you may have heard the term “FERPA” or been told to send a “FERPA letter“. And you’re probably wondering “What the heck is a FERPA letter?” but are too proud / afraid / embarrassed to ask. Well, now you’ll know!
FERPA is an acronym standing for the “Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act” [a U.S. federal law located at 20 U.S.C. §§1232g and 1232h and with regulations located at 34 C.F.R. §99.1 et seq.]
Now, that doesn’t tell you much, but it is a VERY powerful law. The most important part of this law is that you, as a parent of a minor student (regardless of whether the child is disabled or not; the law applies to EVERY student), are entitled to see and make copies of EVERY document that is in your child’s educational records file. This means, any document that is generated about your child as a student in your school district MUST be made available to you to review and copy.
- If a teacher writes a note about your child, you get to see it.
- If they test your child, you get to see the test, the results of the test, and the testing methodology.
- If they evaluate your child, you get to see the evaluation, the credentials of the person who did the evaluation, the results, and the methodology.
- If a disciplinary report is made about your child, you get to see the report, the investigation (if any), and any notes made (including those by witnesses, etc.)
In other words, every scrap of paper that has something on it about your child, you get to see it. There are some limitations, but not many.
As a lawyer, I have sample FERPA letters that I use in nearly every case. Because it is critical to know what is in your child’s file. Here are some tips if you do this on your own (but I do recommend that you at least consult with an attorney who knows this law and its limitations and, more importantly, how the school’s try to circumvent the law or misinterpret the law):
- Do NOT write on the original documents or your copy of the document. Why? If you need this document later in a legal battle, you need to preserve it exactly as how they have it (otherwise, they can say you altered the document to your benefit)
- Make sure you ask for EVERYTHING. You may not know what “everything” is (another reason to consult a lawyer), but when in doubt, ask for it anyway. The worst they can do is say no (and they may be flat out wrong, which gives you a reason to contest them later).
- They can charge you for copies, but the charge must be reasonable. And they can’t block you because it is too expensive or takes too much time to copy. If you need more than one visit to review or copy everything, make as many visits as possible.
(This is federal law, so it doesn’t matter where you are located to discuss this with me).
There is a lot more to know about FERPA letters and other documentation of your child’s school experience in our book SchoolKidsLawyer’s Step-By-Step Guide to Special Education Law.