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With FOIA, Redacting Student Names Will Not Always Protect Student Privacy

Higher Education K-12 Education

A recent informal Illinois Attorney General Public Access Counselor decision interpreting the Freedom of Information Act is an important reminder that redacting student names from public records is not always sufficient to protect student privacy. Particularly where parents, students, or other members of the public are familiar with information that could allow identification of students based on the content of records, records should not be released even if student names are removed.

The decision related to a request for “teacher anecdotal notes.” The school district denied the request, claiming that the records were exempt from disclosure in their entirety, and the requester challenged the denial in a request for review to the PAC.

The PAC acknowledged that for some records, redaction of students’ names will adequately de-identify the records. But in this situation, where the requester sought teachers’ “specific observations of individual student behaviors, skills and attitudes” for nearly two years, redaction would not be sufficient. The PAC explained:

Unlike the test score data of a large group of students . . . which could be readily masked by redacting the students’ names and scrambling the scores, [the] request sought highly specific information pertaining to individual students which was compiled by certain teachers for a discrete timeframe. Redacting the names alone would not suffice to prevent the students from being identified—parents, students, or other members of the public familiar with the teachers’ classrooms could ascertain the identities of students based on the specific circumstances described in the notes or reports.

Accordingly, the notes were properly withheld under Section 7.5(r) of the FOIA, which exempts disclosure of records protected by the Illinois School Student Records Act.

For more information on this or any other FOIA issue, contact the authors of this article or another Franczek attorney.