August 25, 2006
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter in which you sought an advisory opinion concerning an alleged failure by the Dunkirk School District to respond to your request for certain records in a timely manner. The records sought involve "student behavior incidents reportable to the State and not reportable."
In this regard, first, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:
"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgement of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date, which shall be reasonable under the circumstances of the request, when such request will be granted or denied..."
It is noted that new language was added to that provision on May 3, 2005 (Chapter 22, Laws of 2005) stating that:
"If circumstances prevent disclosure to the person requesting the record or records within twenty business days from the date of the acknowledgement of the receipt of the request, the agency shall state, in writing, both the reason for the inability to grant the request within twenty business days and a date certain within a reasonable period, depending on the circumstances, when the request will be granted in whole or in part."
Based on the foregoing, an agency must grant access to records, deny access in writing, or acknowledge the receipt of a request within five business days of receipt of a request. When an acknowledgement is given, it must include an approximate date within twenty business days indicating when it can be anticipated that a request will be granted or denied. However, if it is known that circumstances prevent the agency from granting access within twenty business days, or if the agency cannot grant access by the approximate date given and needs more than twenty business days to grant access, it must provide a written explanation of its inability to do so and a specific date by which it will grant access. That date must be reasonable in consideration of the circumstances of the request.
The amendments clearly are intended to prohibit agencies from unnecessarily delaying disclosure. They are not intended to permit agencies to wait until the fifth business day following the receipt of a request and then twenty additional business days to determine rights of access, unless it is reasonable to do so based upon "the circumstances of the request." From my perspective, every law must be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent, and I point out that in its statement of legislative intent, §84 of the Freedom of Information Law states that "it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible." Therefore, when records are clearly available to the public under the Freedom of Information Law, or if they are readily retrievable, there may be no basis for a delay in disclosure. As the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, has asserted:
"...the successful implementation of the policies motivating the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law centers on goals as broad as the achievement of a more informed electorate and a more responsible and responsive officialdom. By their very nature such objectives cannot hope to be attained unless the measures taken to bring them about permeate the body politic to a point where they become the rule rather than the exception. The phrase 'public accountability wherever and whenever feasible' therefore merely punctuates with explicitness what in any event is implicit" [Westchester News v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 579 (1980)].
In a judicial decision concerning the reasonableness of a delay in disclosure that cited and confirmed the advice rendered by this office concerning reasonable grounds for delaying disclosure, it was held that:
"The determination of whether a period is reasonable must be made on a case by case basis taking into account the volume of documents requested, the time involved in locating the material, and the complexity of the issues involved in determining whether the materials fall within one of the exceptions to disclosure. Such a standard is consistent with some of the language in the opinions, submitted by petitioners in this case, of the Committee on Open Government, the agency charged with issuing advisory opinions on FOIL"(Linz v. The Police Department of the City of New York, Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, December 17, 2001).
If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time beyond the approximate date of less than twenty business days given in its acknowledgement, if it acknowledges that a request has been received, but has failed to grant access by the specific date given beyond twenty business days, or if the specific date given is unreasonable, a request may be considered to have been constructively denied [see §89(4)(a)]. In such a circumstance, the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a), which states in relevant part that:
"...any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial to the head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."
Section 89(4)(b) was also amended, and it states that a failure to determine an appeal within ten business days of the receipt of an appeal constitutes a denial of the appeal. In that circumstance, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Rules.
Second, I believe that the records in question are accessible to the public, except to the extent that they include information that is personally identifiable to a student. Several provisions of law are pertinent to an analysis of rights of access.
First, as a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (j) of the Law.
Relevant is the initial ground for denial, §87(2)(a), which pertains to records that "are specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." On such statute is the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act ("FERPA", 20 USC §1232g), which applies to all educational agencies or institutions that participate in grant or loan programs administered by the United States Department of Education. As such, it includes within its scope virtually all public educational institutions and many private educational institutions. The focal point of the Act is the protection of privacy of students. It provides, in general, that any "education record," a term that is broadly defined, that is personally identifiable to a particular student or students is confidential, unless the parents of students under the age of eighteen waive their right to confidentiality, or unless a student eighteen years or over similarly waives his or her right to confidentiality. Concurrently, FERPA provides rights of access to education records to a parent of a student under the age of eighteen.
The regulations promulgated under FERPA define the phrase "personally identifiable information" to include:
"(a)The student's name;
(b)The name of the student's parents or
other family member;
(c)The address of the student or student's family;
(d)A personal identifier, such as the student's social security number or student number;
(e)A list of personal characteristics that would make the student's identity easily traceable; or
(f)Other information that would make the student's identity easily traceable" (34 CFR Section 99.3).
Based upon the foregoing, disclosure of students' names or other aspects of records that would make a student's identity easily traceable must in my view be withheld in order to comply with federal law.
Also relevant is §2802 of the Education Law, which pertains to the "Uniform violent incident reporting system." Under that section, school districts are required to prepare reports regarding violent or disruptive incidents. As in the case of FERPA, §2802 of the Education Law specifies that portions of those reports identifiable to students must be kept confidential. That provision refers to the obligation of the Commissioner of Education to promulgate regulations that require "the confidentiality of all personally identifiable information"[see §2802(6)], and the regulations in §100.2(gg)(6) states that "all personally identifiable information included in a violent or disruptive incident report shall be confidential."
Lastly, following the deletion of personally identifiable information, I believe that the reports, irrespective of whether they have been communicated to the State Education Department, are accessible to the public. In short, following those deletions, the remainder of the reports would consist of factual information available under subparagraph (iii) of §87(2)(g) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision states that statistical or factual information contained within internal governmental communications are accessible.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Board of Education