ACLU vs. Mingus High School: A Review of Students’ Privacy Rights

ACLU vs. Mingus High School

Like most high schools, Mingus High School in Cottonwood, AZ requires its students to wear identification badges around campus. Underclassmen wear bright red badges and upperclassmen wear grey badges. However, juniors lacking credits must wear red badges and this is what has sparked controversy.

One junior at Mingus High School missed a large sum of days as an underclassman due to medical issues. Because of this, the student must wear a red badge like underclassmen, even though their badge still displays the number 11.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona claims in their inquiry that this policy violates The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA),  Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the rights of students with disabilities.

“The policy publicly displays their private academic information…it does not bear a rational relationship to a legitimate educational interest,” the ACLU wrote in their letter.

FERPA prohibits school officials from disclosing personally identifiable information (PII) from a student’s education records. There are exceptions to FERPA, and a district’s definition of PII may vary. The main exception is that primary and secondary schools are allowed to display directory information without consent unless the parent decides to opt out. Information that an official obtains through personal knowledge or observation is not protected under FERPA.

Susan Segal, an attorney representing the school, has responded by stating that the ACLU claims were inaccurate. In the letter, Segal mentions her specific reasonings.

“The United States Department of Education (DOE) has adopted a regulation that does not allow a parent to ‘opt out’ of requiring students to wear IDs containing directory information,” Attorney Susan Segal wrote.

The letter further elaborates on reasons why the school’s policy is not unlawful. Segal states that if a parent does choose to opt out, students will be given an ID badge that does not specify her grade in neither color nor number.

“Should this matter go to court, the District will be presenting evidence of the need for the differentiation of the badges,” Segal states in the letter. “However, that determination is one for the District and its Governing Board—not the ACLU. And, as you are probably aware, courts are loathe to micromanage school districts.”

Mingus High School has since responded by rescinding its policy.

“Campus safety and students feeling like they belong are incredibly important at Mingus
Union High School,” Mingus High School said in their letter.

An Overview of Red Mountain’s Policy

Seniors who are in good academic standing have gold ID badges. Underclassmen and seniors not in good academic standing have white ID badges. Seniors lacking one or two credits have the opportunity to get a gold ID badge at the beginning of the second semester.

One Red Mountain junior who lacked a credit entered the 2018-19 school year with the number 10 on their ID, albeit their true grade should be 11.

“It’s only a number,” an anonymous student said. “I know that I am a junior. People make mistakes and it happens—I can still get back from it. It’s like a reminder. I do agree with the school, but at the same time I don’t.”

“When you see that 10 on [the badge] there, it makes you want to do better,” the student added. “It encourages you to be in the grade that you are and to graduate on time—not to make you think that you did something wrong. If they put my true grade on there now, I probably wouldn’t have thought about it much, given it importance or been reminded to fix it.”

Red Mountain’s policy differs in that only seniors who have earned sufficient credits are given different colored ID badges, but regarding a lack of credits, the grade numbers can still change for any student.