By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, The Associated Press
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A request by several news-media groups for the school records of the man who gunned down nine people in Dayton last year was rejected Nov. 5 by the Ohio Supreme Court.
The groups, including The Associated Press, argued that the student records could provide information on whether authorities properly handled early warning signs from slain gunman Connor Betts.
But the court ruled 6-1 that the law “is unambiguous and is not truly susceptible to differing interpretations,” according to the majority decision written by Justice Melody Stewart.
“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,” Stewart wrote. “If that student is deceased, he is no longer available to grant consent.”
Stewart added that if the state Legislature had intended that the death of a person could alter the confidentiality of such records, “it could have expressly enacted such a rule.”
Justice Sharon Kennedy dissented, noting the law refers to records of a student attending a public school, in the present tense.
The law “does not prohibit a public school from releasing the records of a former student who is deceased and therefore not currently ‘attending’ that school,” Kennedy wrote.
The court heard arguments for and against releasing the records in June. Ohio law was meant to align with federal law, a statute the U.S. Department of Education has interpreted to mean that students’ privacy rights end if they die, as do legal interpretations in other states, argued Erin Rhinehart, an attorney representing the media groups, at the time.
Those include opinions backing the release of student records posthumously by attorneys general in several states including Kentucky, Oregon, Texas and Utah, she said. Rhinehart called the Nov. 5 decision disappointing.
“Perhaps the Ohio Legislature will agree that the Court’s decision today is flawed, and contradicts Ohio’s public policy in favor of disclosure, and step in to clarify Ohio law to permit access to such records,” Rhinehart said.
Betts was killed by police half a minute after he opened fire Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton’s crowded Oregon District entertainment area. Armed with an AR-15-style gun with an extended ammunition magazine, Betts killed nine people, including his sister, and wounded dozens more.
After the shooting, 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 Betts had also been suspended after he came to school with a list of female students he wanted to sexually assault.
Police investigators said Betts had a “history of obsession with violent ideations with mass shootings and expressed a desire to commit a mass shooting.” The FBI said it uncovered evidence Betts “looked into violent ideologies.”
But authorities have also yet to identify a motive, or been able to say definitely whether Betts intended to kill his sister, Megan, or if her death was inadvertent.
The Ohio Supreme Court took the case after an appeals court ruled in favor of Bellbrook-Sugarcreek schools.
The appellate court ruled the media organizations hadn’t established a clear legal right to the records. The organizations also include the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Dayton Daily News, CNN, The New York Times, and WHIO-TV.