Does Oregon District shooter deserve privacy after death? Ohio’s top court to decide

Connor Betts yearbook photo from Bellbrook High School 2011-2012 school year.
Connor Betts yearbook photo from Bellbrook High School 2011-2012 school year.

Ohio Supreme Court considers whether school records should be released

The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments in a lawsuit brought by the Dayton Daily News and other media seeking release of education records on the Oregon District shooter, Connor Betts.

Betts, 24, killed nine people and wounded dozens before he was shot dead Aug. 4 by Dayton police in the Oregon District.

Betts’ former classmates told the Dayton Daily News he had created a hit list and a rape list with other students’ names, had other incidents of violence and threats as a teenager and was suspended from Bellbrook High School for an extended period of time.

The Dayton Daily News and other media outlets filed public records requests with Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools seeking Betts’ discipline, attendance and other education records to inform the public and whether more could have been done to prevent the mass shooting.

Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools refused to release the records arguing that would violate state and federal student privacy laws. The Second District Court of Appeals agreed with the school district.

But attorneys for the media appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court arguing that those privacy laws don’t apply to adult former students who are deceased. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost joined the suit in support of the media in December.

On Wednesday, Tabitha Justice, attorney for Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools, argued that state law is silent on whether confidentiality expires when a student dies and clarifying that question should be left to the Ohio General Assembly. She also noted that the government has an obligation to protect private data collected by schools.

Erin Rhinehart, attorney for news media, argued that the high court should interpret the intent of the Legislature and consider the context that the Ohio Student Privacy Law was written. She noted that the state law was crafted when common law refused to extend privacy after death and it was written to bring Ohio into compliance with federal law. Consistently, the U.S. Department of Education guidance has said the federal privacy law doesn’t apply to deceased adult students, she said.

Attorney Ben Flowers of Yost’s office said “This is the very sort of case for which the Public Records Act exists. It is so that individuals can obtain important information from their government that they can use to insist on legislation and potentially hold local and government officials accountable.”

A decision from the Ohio Supreme Court is expected in the coming months.

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