University of Montana: Federal Funding at Risk over FERPA

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University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson was charged with rape in 2013, but the battle continues over the release of documents regarding the case — and it could result in dramatic financial repercussions for students.

Jessie Mazur, writing for the Montana Kaimin, the university’s newspaper, says the US Department of Education (DOE) advised that if the records were released, which would violate a federal privacy law, all federal funding could be revoked from the University of Montana system. In March of this year, Jon Krakauer petitioned Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian to release the documentation from a student code of conduct hearing concerning the allegations against Johnson for a book he is writing about sexual assaults at the university. Helena District Court judge Kathy Seely handed down an order for Christian to release the records based on Montana’s Right-to-Know law that states “every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writings of the state… .”  Christian filed with the Montana Supreme Court to appeal Seely’s ruling.

Releasing the documents would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) which protects students’ educational records, according to Kevin McRae, Communications Representative for the commissioner’s office.

“One of the penalties (of violating FERPA) includes loss of all federal funds, the largest source of funding in the Montana University System,” he said.

The federal funds for the University of Montana are in the form of $73.5 million in Pell Grants to enrolled students (for the 2012-2013 year), as well as federally-funded loans, work-study or research and program grants. McRae continues to follow the DOE order not to release the documents.

Krakauer’s attorney, Peter Meloy, says Christian may be in a tough position, since there is little chance that the case will make it to the the federal courts because it is not a federal matter. However, the chief legal counsel for the commissioner’s office and Christian’s attorney, Vivian Hammill, said the case will not stop at the state level. She says the DOE has been following the case closely and might get involved.

The case is really about the balance between Montanans’ right to access public information and their right to privacy, as McRae put it.

“Whatever we do, we want to get it right. If we violate someone’s privacy, we can’t un-ring that bell,” McRae said, “We can’t make a misstep that will jeopardize Montana students’ receiving of student aid. If it turns out we’re supposed to release the records, we will gladly do so.”

All of this may take years to work out. Johnson was acquitted on the charge of sexual intercourse without consent in Missoula County District Court. The trial highlighted the concerns over how the University of Montana and law enforcement in Missoula handled reports of rape by university students, writes Kristen Cates of the Great Falls Tribune. The Associated Press adds that Jordan Johnson was not expelled from the university, but was suspended from the football team for the 2012 season. This year, according to the Associated Press, the Grizzlies are 2-2 so far, and Johnson is at quarterback.