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Searchers for ‘Red Flags’ in Shooter’s School Records Challenge Claim that Privacy Laws Block Release

Image of a sidewalk with a memorial of flowers outside a building and television camera crews set up in the street (flickr/Scott Beale)

Court will hear news media’s request for access to Dayton shooter’s school records. (flickr/Scott Beale)

Image of a sidewalk with a memorial of flowers outside a building and television camera crews set up in the street (flickr/Scott Beale)

Court will hear news media’s request for access to Dayton shooter’s school records. (flickr/Scott Beale)

Dayton became the center of international media attention on Aug. 4, 2019, when 24-year-old Connor Betts opened fire outside a bar in Dayton’s Oregon District, killing nine and injuring 27 before police shot and killed Betts.

The tragedy raised questions about what led to the attack and if authorities missed “red flags” in Betts’ life that, if discovered and addressed, could have prevented the shooting. Numerous news media organizations wanted to learn more about Betts’ past and filed public records requests to see the educational records of the 2013 Bellbrook High School graduate.

Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local School District officials denied the requests, stating that the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Ohio Student Privacy Act prohibit the release of a student’s records without a student’s consent. Since Betts didn’t consent to the release of his student records, the district wouldn’t make them available.

The Ohio Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next week in the appeal by several news media outlets seeking the records, including Cable News Network (CNN), the Dayton Daily News, and the Associated Press.

Media Challenge Ruling on Records Law The school district cited R.C. 149.43(A)(1)(v), which states government records aren’t public if the release “is prohibited by state or federal law.” The district maintains that FERPA and the Ohio student privacy law prevent the release.

The news media sought a writ of mandamus from the Second District Court of Appeals to compel the Bellbrook-Sugarcreek district to hand over Betts’ student records, arguing that neither law applies to the records of deceased adults. The Second District denied the request. The news organizations appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which agreed to hear State ex rel. Cable News Network v. Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local Schools.

The school district notes that FERPA threatens the loss of federal funds for any district that doesn’t comply with its policy of forbidding the release of educational records without the consent of a student’s parents. The Ohio law, R.C. 3319.321, written to comply with FERPA, states the records can’t be released without the written consent of parents or guardians when the child is under 18 or without the consent of a student who is over 18, the district notes. The plain language of the law doesn’t give the district the right to release the records, the district argues.

The news media counter that laws are passed against a “backdrop of common law.” Under common law, a person’s right to privacy extinguishes when the person dies. The organizations assert that laws passed by Congress and states that remove a common-law rule must explicitly state that is the intention. Since neither FERPA nor the state law addresses what happens to student records once the student dies, the records become public, the media maintain.

The news media’s position is supported by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which filed an amicus curiae brief in the case. The Court will permit the media and the attorney general’s office to share oral argument time.

Oral Argument Details To comply with state directives during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court will hear oral arguments in eight cases via videoconference on June 2 and 3. The Court will hear four cases on June 2 and hear the public records dispute and three other cases on Wednesday, June 3. Oral arguments begin at 9 a.m. each day. All arguments are streamed live online at sc.ohio.gov, and broadcast live and archived on The Ohio Channel.

In addition to these highlights, the Court’s Office of Public Information released preview articles today about each case, available through the case-name links.

Tuesday, June 2 A Centerville man was charged with making a false report and improper use of a 911 system after reporting there was an active shooter in his home. As part of his sentence, he was ordered to pay $1,375 in restitution based on the lost man-hours spent by officers who were taken off their normal roles to respond to the scene. An appeals court vacated the restitution order, finding the city doesn’t qualify as a “victim” under Ohio law. In Centerville v. Knab, the city maintains the 2017 amendment to the Ohio Constitution known as “Marsy’s Law” broadened the definition of “victim” enough to include the city, and entitles the city to restitution.

The case In re A.M. involves a woman who spent nine years moving among the homes of relatives because of her parents’ absences. She entered foster care in Hamilton County at age 13 and had a child at 16. Because of ongoing difficulties, the juvenile court gave permanent custody of the child to the local children services agency in 2018. The court had to determine whether that step was in the child’s best interest in accordance with factors in state law. The mother argues that the court’s decision didn’t fully analyze or discuss the child’s relationship with the parents. The agency responds that courts must consider all the factors, but don’t need to explicitly discuss each factor in court decisions.

An Ohio power company that supplies electricity to other competitive electric providers also is responsible for managing the providers’ meters and reporting their usage. For the first seven months of 2013, the power company reported inaccurate usage data from a Middletown, Ohio, industrial plant. Two of the seven months of errors couldn’t be adjusted, leading to overcharges of $1.6 million. In re Direct Energy Business v. Duke Energy Ohio is the power company’s appeal from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which found the company failed to provide adequate service to the provider. The company contends that the dispute must be handled by a federal commission and that the error was isolated and inadvertent.

The Board of Professional Conduct suggests a Lucas County attorney receive a two-year suspension, with one year stayed, for several ethical rule violations, including repeatedly calling a juvenile court magistrate a liar, and consistently making disparaging comments about opposing parties. The attorney, who has been practicing for 42 years, “categorically” denies that he said or wrote anything false about anyone involved in the matters. In Toledo Bar Association v. Yoder, the attorney asserts the charges against him result from two cases that “turned toxic because of some extremely bizarre circumstances and some very strange people.”

Wednesday, June 3 Since July 2015, the city of Cincinnati and a building owner have been engaged in a legal dispute over a large outdoor sign posted on a wall adjoining the owner’s downtown building. The owner argues the city’s sign ordinance is an unconstitutional restriction on its free speech rights. In City of Cincinnati v. Fourth National Realty, the city maintains the trial court has no jurisdiction to consider the ongoing dispute because the company failed to serve the Ohio Attorney General’s Office with a copy of its initial 2015 claim.

In Menorah Park Center for Senior Living v. Rolston, a center that offers healthcare services sued a woman in Shaker Heights for $464 in unpaid medical bills. The center’s court filing included billing statements, which listed descriptions of the services, dates the services were provided, medical procedure codes, and other information. The woman filed a countersuit, arguing that the center had made an unauthorized and unprivileged disclosure of her health information. The center asserts that federal privacy laws permit this disclosure and also preempt the state lawsuit. The woman responds that the federal privacy laws allow states to have more stringent privacy protections, which Ohio has, based on a 1999 state supreme court ruling.

A Columbus attorney faces disbarment in Disciplinary Counsel v. Sarver because he continued to practice law after he was suspended in November 2018. The attorney began working on a wrongful death case for the mother of a woman killed in a June 2018 car crash near Cleveland. The attorney didn’t tell his client or the probate court about his suspension, and he continued working on a settlement with the insurance company. The attorney maintains that certain rule violations don’t apply in his case, that his attempt to offer restitution to the mother should be considered as a mitigating factor, and that his misconduct warrants the lesser sanction of an indefinite suspension.