Caught On Camera: A parent's fight to see school surveillance video

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Surveillance cameras are in most secondary schools in Vermont -- Jennifer Costa investigates parent's rights to see the footage.

"There was an assault. She was thrown down a flight of stairs by another child," said Victoria Mason, a Lamoille Union High School parent.

The pushing match was caught on camera at the school. Fifteen year-old Cheyenne Mason suffered a concussion, and now her mom wants to see the video. "They told me they could not release that information to me," Mason said.

We wanted to figure out why Mason was barred from reviewing the footage with the school's principal, and went to the Lamoille North Supervisory Union for answers.

"Our position is that we don't disclose video," said Catherine Gallagher, LNSU's superintendent.

Gallagher points to a federal law called FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It keeps personally identifiable information in your child's education record safe from prying eyes. The superintendent says that's why she only allows school officials to see these recordings.

"I would think that being a parent, we would have those rights to at least see our children," Mason said. She is convinced Lamoille North is misinterpreting the law. According to the law, Vermont does consider video surveillance an educational record protected under FERPA, but there are protections for parents. "Something may be an educational record, but a parent has a right to access educational records," said Jerry O'Neill, a former federal prosecutor and current legal analyst.

We asked him to take a look at the high school's surveillance procedures, which say: "Parents and students will not have access to the security system or its recordings."

"That's just wrong. It depends upon the circumstances," O'Neill said.

If multiple kids are caught on camera -- like in Cheyenne's case -- the Vermont Agency of Ed says schools can legally share a recording with a concerned parent by redacting or blurring the identities of the other students. Parents may have to foot the bill for that.

"Your child, your child alone, or your child that can be isolated, or your child with a teacher -- someone else who is not a student -- you get to see it," O'Neill said.

But this superintendent sees it differently. We posed several scenarios, including a teacher abusing a child.

Reporter Jennifer Costa: Could parents see the video in question?
Catherine Gallagher: No.
Reporter Jennifer Costa: So are you telling me that the public just has to trust that the school is going to do the right thing?
Catherine Gallagher: I believe the schools do the right thing.

"There are lots of things that I can't remember," Cheyenne said.

We wanted to know what it would it take for this district to give the Masons peace of mind?

"Subpoena or court order," Gallagher said.

Without the money for a lawyer, this Mom says she will never find out what really happened that day. "They are hiding behind the confidentiality," Mason said.

The real irony here is that police and prosecutors have seen the Cheyenne Mason footage. The sheriff says his resource officer at the school just gave it to him -- no subpoena needed. If it is an educational record -- as school official insist -- handing it over to anyone, including police, is not allowed. There's no FERPA exception for law enforcement. Legal analyst Jerry O'Neill says the district is trying to have it both ways.