The identity of students who submit complaints about teachers to public schools, including colleges and universities, are public records and must be disclosed to citizens, a Florida appellate court ruled Thursday.
A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal said Gainesville-based Santa Fe College must release the name of a student who sent the school an email complaining about former math instructor Darnell Rhea’s classroom performance.
“Hot diggity dog,” said Rhea, who doesn’t have a lawyer and argued the case himself, when he learned of the decision from The Associated Press. “This is amazing.”
The appellate panel unanimously agreed with Rhea’s argument that the student’s name is not covered by state and federal laws granting confidentiality to education records because such complaints don’t directly relate to students.
Instead, they directly relate to teachers but only tangentially to complaining students, District Judge Stephanie Ray wrote for the panel.
“To me, it’s just un-American that you don’t have a right to know who your accuser is,” Rhea said by phone from his home in Melrose.
A lawyer for the college did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
“A citizen’s right to public records is a fundamental constitutional right in Florida,” Ray wrote.
Barbara Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-base First Amendment Foundation, said the ruling is important because courts in some states have interpreted the federal Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act differently.
FERPA does not prohibit the disclosure of education records but it withholds federal funding from schools that have a policy or practice of permitting the disclosure of records “directly related to a student.”
Rhea and Petersen both said they didn’t believe that the ruling would have a chilling effect on legitimate student complaints but that it should discourage frivolous ones.
Rhea believes Santa Fe declined to renew his semester-to-semester contract for part-time teaching at two branch campuses in Starke and Keystone Highs because of the complaint. Rhea said he suspected it was submitted by a student who attended only one class.
The student wrote that Rhea made humiliating remarks in class and that his teaching methods were unorthodox. Rhea denied all negative allegations.
The college has denied Rhea was not renewed because of the complaint.
The opinion reversed a decision by Circuit Judge Victor Hulsander, who had ruled that the student’s identity was a confidential education record. The college had released the email to Rhea but removed the students’ name.
The case now returns to Hulsander for further action, but Rhea said he’s not interested in getting his job back or any damages. The appellate court also rejected Rhea’s allegation the college violated its own rules in handling the complaint, but he said that was far less important that the public records issue.
The case is one of several open-government lawsuits that Rhea, a 70-year-old retired public school teacher, has filed over the years.
The 1st District Court of Appeal also sided with Rhea in 1994, when it ruled the Alachua County School Board violated Florida’s open meetings “sunshine” law by holding a workshop meeting outside the school district in Orlando, where members were attending a conference. Rhea subsequently was elected to the school board and served as its chairman.