Dayton, Ohio – The Ohio Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that school disciplinary records for the man who killed 9 people and injured 27 others in Dayton last year should be kept secret, ruling against a public-records lawsuit filed by CNN and other media organizations.
In a 6-1 decision, justices ruled that a state student privacy law forbids a Dayton-area high school from releasing school records without a student’s consent still apply in the case of Connor Betts, a 24-year-old man who was shot and killed by police.
The media organizations, which also included the Dayton Daily News, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the New York Times, had argued that the that Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local School District should release the records for Betts, a former student who graduated in 2013. They argued a federal student-privacy law the school district cited in rejecting their public-records request only applied for students still attending. The federal government has interpreted the law as no longer applying after the former student dies.
But in their ruling, justices said Ohio’s student-privacy law is broader than the federal law.
“The records of a person who attended a public school can be disclosed only with the consent of the student, if that student is 18 years of age or older. If that student is deceased, he is no longer available to grant consent,” said the majority opinion, written by Justice Melody Stewart.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sharon Kennedy said that since the state student-privacy law is written in the present tense, it does not apply to former students. The majority called Kennedy’s interpretation “nonsensical,” since the legislature wrote the law to align the state law with the federal law.
A message has been left with Bellbrook-Sugarcreek school officials.
Monica Nieporte, president and executive director of the Ohio News Media Association, said her organization, a trade group for Ohio media outlets, is “very disappointed in the decision.”
“We have supported the efforts of journalists to obtain these records primarily because it would have helped to determine what actions the school system did or did not take to address any red flags that occurred with this student’s behavior in the years leading up to the mass shooting,” she said.
Betts was killed by police half a minute after he opened fire Aug. 4 in Dayton’s crowded Oregon District entertainment area. But armed with an AR-15 style gun with an extended ammunition magazine, Betts still killed nine, including his sister, and injured dozens more.
Afterward, high school classmates said Betts was suspended years ago for compiling a “hit list” of fellow students he wanted to harm. Two of the classmates said that incident followed an earlier suspension after Betts came to school with a list of female students he wanted to sexually assault.