November 13, 2013

Chris Whitfield: School system officials hiding behind ‘paper shield’

Recent events at Coahulla Creek High School have some parents concerned about the safety of their children and questioning a lack of communication from the leadership of Whitfield County Schools.

School officials discovered a student with a “kill list” at Coahulla Creek that included the names of students, teachers and an administrator. The matter was turned over to law enforcement and rightfully so. But once an arrest was made, nothing was said publicly by the school system, and parents were not told of the threat. It wasn’t until a grandparent of a student notified The Daily Citizen about two weeks later that parents had any idea what was going on at the school.

School system officials claimed at the time they couldn’t comment on whether or how the student was disciplined because of the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and later said they didn’t want to hinder the investigation by releasing any information.

FERPA is a paper shield that school officials love to hide behind whenever they don’t want to comment on things that could bring negative publicity. Rather than say “no comment” or answer questions about their actions, they claim they can’t comment because FERPA won’t let them. But unless you name a student or provide details from the student’s educational record, FERPA doesn’t apply.

Under their strict definition and narrow interpretation of FERPA, Whitfield County Schools officials really need to stop sending pictures of their honor roll students to the newspaper since identifying them would seem to be a violation of FERPA. They also need to stop handing out rosters at football games because identifying the students would be a FERPA violation under their interpretation.

Whitfield County Schools officials refused to discuss the punishment of an Eastbrook Elementary School student who was caught “smoking” Smarties. The Daily Citizen contacted school officials after the mother of the student brought the discipline to the attention of the newspaper. School officials said they couldn’t comment because of FERPA.

FERPA is meant to protect the student’s right of privacy. It does not shield school officials from questions they are uncomfortable with. Once the mother of the student identified the student, there was no privacy to break.

In the case of the Coahulla Creek “kill list,” Superintendent Judy Gilreath said school officials did the right thing because the school’s attorney said they did. Well, of course he did. When was the last time you heard an attorney tell you his client did the wrong thing?

Legitimate questions and concerns from parents need to be addressed. Why weren’t parents notified? Why did it take several days for this situation to come to light? Were teachers alerted to the situation so they could be on the lookout for any potential problems? School staff who spoke confidentially to me said they learned of the threat after the fact.

As far as concerns about possibly hindering the investigation — which were not mentioned at the time of the first newspaper report, but were told to a reporter last Wednesday after rumors of a bomb threat at the school — do Whitfield County Schools officials think so poorly of our local law enforcement officials that they believe the law enforcement officials cannot conduct a proper investigation? Or are our school officials insecure about someone entering the school who could “tamper with evidence,” as Gilreath contended in an interview with reporter Christopher Smith?

Sadly, they are.

On the same day of the bomb threat rumors, I walked into the foyer at Coahulla Creek some 15 minutes before students were to be dismissed for the day. I walked to the front counter. I milled about the lobby. Am I so well known that everyone knew I was there to write a story on the cross country team? Did anyone ask me what I was doing there? Did anyone ask to see my credentials? Did anyone ask if they could help me? Was I confronted in any way on a day when the schools were being “extra vigilant?”

No, they did not and I was not.

“There’s probably more scrutiny over there than there ever has been,” Gilreath told Smith.


Whitfield County Schools officials can continue to hide behind FERPA, but eventually parents, who have legitimate concerns for the safety of their children, are going to demand better communication. Because nobody seems to be answering their questions right now.

Chris Whitfield is a sports writer for The Daily Citizen. He is a certified educator.

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