Who is Considered A Parent For Purposes of Accessing School Records?

Under state and federal law, a parent generally has the right to access his/her child’s educational records. The question is, who is considered a “parent” in under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”).  As the definition of “family” changes and broadens, it is important for schools to know who has the right to access a student’s records.

Under FERPA, the definition of “parent” for purposes of accessing records includes “a parent of a student and includes a natural parent, a guardian, or an individual acting as a parent in the absence of a parent or guardian.” 34 C.F.R. §99.3.  FERPA further provides that “either parent” has full access to all rights under FERPA “unless the agency or institution has been provided with evidence that there is a court order, State statute, or legally binding document relating to such matters as divorce, separation, or custody that specifically revokes those rights.” 34 C.F.R. §99.4.

So what does “an individual acting as a parent in the absence of a parent or guardian” mean? The Family Compliance Office of the U.S. Department of Education has interpreted this to mean that a parent is absent if he or she is not present in the day-to-day home environment of the child.  The Family Policy Compliance Office has issued guidance regarding stepparents that establishes that a “stepparent has rights under FERPA where the stepparent is present on a day-to-day basis with the natural parent and child and the other parent is absent from that home.  In such, cases, stepparents have the same rights under FERPA as do natural parents.  Conversely, a stepparent who is not present on a day-to-day basis in the home of the child does not have rights under FERPA with respect to such child’s education records.”  Letter to Parent re: Disclosure of Education Records to Stepparents (FPCO August 20, 2004).

Additionally, Connecticut state law requires that “Either parent or legal guardian of a minor student shall, upon written request to a local or regional board of education and within a reasonable time, be entitled to knowledge of and access to all educational, medical, or similar records maintained in such student's cumulative record…” C.G.S. § 10-15b.

Finally, a parent could designate another individual to have the right of access to their child’s records. Can one natural parent dictate that the school not allow the other parent’s designees access to the child’s record?  In short, barring the existence of a court order to the contrary, each natural parent has the right to access records and designate other individuals to have access to the records without the permission of the other parent.  Thus, one parent cannot prevent another natural parent of that parent’s designees from accessing the records without some type of court order.

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Alerts, commentary, and insights from the attorneys of Pullman & Comley’s School Law practice on federal and Connecticut law as it pertains to educational institutions, whether those institutions be public school districts, private K-12 schools, or post-secondary colleges and universities.

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