In a recent decision, the Illinois Appellate Court held that it is not an unfair labor practice for a school district to refuse to release school student records to a union in a grievance proceeding without a court order or consent of the students’ parents. The reasoning of the case can be applied to other types of adversarial proceedings to which school districts and other educational institutions may be parties. The case is an important reminder of the rights and responsibilities of K-12 educational institutions to protect the records of their students.
Board of Education of Chicago v. Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board arose from the dismissal by the Board of Education for the City of Chicago of a school security officer for initiating physical altercations with two students. The employee’s union sought disciplinary records for the two students to use to defend the employee in a grievance proceeding initiated by the union. The union agreed that the students’ names could be redacted from the records and that the records would remain confidential pursuant to a collective bargaining confidentiality provision. The Board nonetheless refused to release the records, citing the Illinois School Student Records Act, even when served a subpoena from the arbitrator in the case. The union filed an unfair labor practice charge against the Board. The union alleged that the refusal to release the records violated the Board’s duty to produce records to the union in a grievance proceeding. The IELRB agreed with the union, and the Board appealed through administrative review to the Appellate Court. The Appellate Court reversed the IELRB’s decision, holding that student disciplinary records are protected from disclosure under the Student Records Act in grievances before the IELRB, even if the records are relevant to the proceeding, unless the union obtains a court order requiring their release.
As an initial matter, the Court found that the records would be “school student records” protected by the Student Records Act even if the student names were redacted. The Court explained that because the records of only two students were sought, the records were sought for the express purpose of discovering their individual disciplinary histories, and the records would only be useful if they were linked to the specific students, merely redacting the students’ names would not protect their identities.
The Court then rejected the argument that school student records can be released in an IELRB proceeding despite the Student Records Act. The Court noted that there was no conflict between the Student Records Act and the Labor Relations Act requirement that records be released to the union, because the union can seek a court order to obtain student records under the Student Records Act. Then, the Court rejected the argument that a provision of the Student Records Act allowing release of student records “[t]o any person as specifically required by State or federal law” permitted release of the records under the Labor Relations Act. The Court found that the Labor Relations Act does not expressly order the disclosure of student records as would be required for the Student Records Act exception to apply. The Court also held that it was not sufficient that the union agreed to hold the documents in confidence, because parents have rights under the Student Records Act that cannot be abrogated by an agreement between the Board and the union. Finally, the Court held that a subpoena issued by an arbitrator is not a “court order” for purposes of the Student Records Act, because the Labor Relations Act provides for enforcement of a subpoena in a court of law. In concluding, the Court noted that although it was mindful that in some rare cases delays might be caused by the need to enforce a subpoena for student records in court, that would be the exception, not the rule, and most enforcement actions may be resolved expeditiously.
The Court’s decision effectively divests the IELRB of any jurisdiction to compel or even authorize the release of school student records in labor arbitrations. With respect to other types of records, the Board may compel release of the records after balancing confidentiality interests. Nonetheless, with respect to student records courts commonly issue orders allowing release of such records in administrative proceedings. There is no reason to believe that relevant student records will not become part of the records in labor arbitrations, although unions, employers, and in some cases the school district itself will have an additional step of either obtaining parental consent or a court order if they wish to use student records in a labor arbitration. The Court’s reasoning also can be applied to many other types of adversarial proceedings to which school districts and similar educational entities may be parties. For example, student records requests are becoming more and more common in tenured teacher dismissal hearings and student disciplinary matters. This decision suggests that in those cases, too, either parental consent or a court order will need to be obtained before student records can be released or used by a party in the proceedings. The case is an important reminder that the Student Records Act provides strong protections for school student records—so strong that, without a court order or parental consent, they will not be overcome by the rights of the opposing parties in adversarial proceedings.