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Students cannot sue schools and colleges that improperly release their grades or other personal information, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday. The 7-2 ruling was a setback for students and families seeking to keep information private, but school groups said it would head off costly and ineffective lawsuits. The ruling, written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, said the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, gives “no specific, individually enforceable rights,” leaving it up to the Education Department to punish a school by stripping its federal funding. In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said the ruling gives few options to people who are wronged under this law — and probably many other laws that don’t explicitly allow lawsuits. The case pitted administrators of a private Jesuit college in Washington state against a student who claimed his hopes of becoming a teacher were ruined by unproven allegations he sexually assaulted a fellow student. A jury ordered Gonzaga University to pay Ru Paster $450,000 for releasing details of the allegation to the state education department, which was considering giving him a teaching certificate. The Supreme Court said Paster was entitled to nothing under FERPA because the 1974 law does not say anything about private lawsuits for violations. The Court’s decision does not stop students from filing lawsuits on other grounds, however. Paster also accused the school of defamation, invasion of privacy, negligence, and breach of contract. He won about $600,000 on those claims, which were not contested in this case. Jon Fuller, senior fellow at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said the ruling will prevent minor lawsuits that would be “costly and not a very effective way to protect individuals and protect overall privacy.” Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel of the American Council on Education, which advocates for colleges and universities, said allowing lawsuits under FERPA could have led to “a new cottage industry of lawyers who would sue institutions.” But Beth Brinkmann, Paster’s attorney, said the law was in effect for more than 25 years before the Gonzaga case and that “there was no flood of litigation.” “Schools can easily comply with this,” she said. “In those egregious situations like this, where there was a violation that caused a student serious harm, until today there was a means by which a student or parent could go to court.” Steven Shapiro, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the decision effectively strips victims of recourse. “It’s unrealistic to expect the federal government to cut off federal funding in these cases, yet that’s the only remedy that the Court recognizes,” he said. “So you’re left with a situation in which Congress passed FERPA to protect student privacy rights, and the Court has now left students with no way to protect those rights.” The privacy law gives parents or adult students veto power over release of school records at any school, from kindergarten through graduate school, that receives federal money. It covers personal information such as race, religion, grades, courses taken, attendance and disciplinary actions. Paster graduated from the Spokane, Wash., college in 1994, but says he could not get the teaching job he wanted because of the allegation he stalked and sexually assaulted the student. The allegations came to the school thirdhand and the alleged victim denied them. The case is Gonzaga University v. John Doe, 01-679. Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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