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An investigation but no answers

Posted on January 10, 2022

Updated on January 15, 2022

OpinionEditorials

Sutton

Sutton

Johnston school board Chairman Todd Sutton is right. Federal law bars schools from saying much about individual students.

(That assumes a school or school system receives federal dollars. Years ago, Johnston County Public Schools steered federal dollars away from low-performing high schools lest they be subject to the penalties of the No Child Left Behind law.)

Mr. Sutton used the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, to disclose nothing about an internal investigation into complaints of racist bullying at Princeton High School. Like many in education, Mr. Sutton read more into FERPA than is in the law. Or more accurately, we suspect, many in education use the federal law as an excuse not to disclose things a school system would find embarrassing or damaging.

But nothing in FERPA would have prevented Mr. Sutton from saying, for example, that the internal investigation confirmed reports of racist bullying at Princeton. Likewise, nothing in the law would have prevented the school board chairman from saying that Princeton High disciplined one or more students for their behavior. No one really needed to know student names to be satisfied that the school took action against a bully or bullies. Instead, Mr. Sutton left parents and taxpayers to guess the outcome of the internal investigation.

In our experience, when left to conjecture, people tend to assume the worst. And in this particular case, the worst might be that the school system is sweeping racist bullying under the proverbial rug.

Mr. Sutton said the school board would ask its law firm to take its own look at Princeton High. But again, parents are left to wonder. Did the internal investigation find nothing but the school board wants to make sure it didn’t miss anything? Or did that investigation find instances of racist bullying and the school board wants to know how widespread the problem is at Princeton?

We don’t know, and we might never know. If Mr. Sutton used FERPA to keep the lid on the internal investigation, why would he not use the federal law to do the same with the pending investigation?

From time to time, Mr. Sutton has said the school board, under his leadership, will be transparent. He keeps missing opportunities to make good on that pledge.

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