Every so often, we at NCRCR like to take a break from troublesome legal trends to celebrate the ways in which the courts help to protect our rights. One such victory was recently handed down by an appeals court on the west coast, in Disability Law Center of Alaska v. Anchorage School District.
The case involved an elementary school class of children with intensive special needs in Anchorage, Alaska. According to case attorney Holly Johanknecht, the class of less than ten students was rumored to be very poorly supervised. There were even allegations that the conditions in the classroom left some students vulnerable to physical abuse. A disability rights organization known as the Disability Law Center of Alaska got wind of the situation and sought to investigate in order to protect the children. The organization filed a lawsuit to gain access to student records, including contact information for the students’ parents. The suit was filed under the federal Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act, which gives agencies, like the Disability Law Center of Alaska, the authority to investigate incidents of abuse and neglect of individuals with developmental disabilities.
In the first ruling on the case, the district court found that another piece of federal legislation, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prevented the school district from releasing the records. On appeal, however, the court held that the Developmental Disabilities Act provides an exception to FERPA. Judge Jerome Farris wrote in the decision:
"The agencies stated that 'if a school or other facility could refuse to provide the name and contact information, it could interfere substantially with investigation of abuse or neglect, thereby thwarting Congress' intent that act to protect vulnerable populations from abuse or neglect.’”