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State to seek repeal of access law for noncustodial parents

Student record policy at issue

State education officials plan to ask for the repeal of a statute that has forced many divorced fathers to prove they are not dangerous before they can receive their child's report card, which may include a former spouse's address.

The move was prompted by federal authorities who, after being contacted by a local father, said the law was discriminatory and put Massachusetts in jeopardy of losing federal funds.

Within the next two months, Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll will come up with a new policy that will treat divorced parents more fairly, while still protecting parents who have legitimate reasons to worry that former spouses could use student records to locate and harm the family, said spokeswoman Heidi Perlman.

Perlman said the commissioner has always understood ''the spirit" of the current law, but agrees with officials at the US Department of Education that the existing statute ''went too far."

''We're pleased to be in a position to adjust this law," Perlman said.

Some advocates for divorced fathers have been lobbying against the law since it was passed seven years ago, arguing that it treated noncustodial parents unfairly.

The current law applies to any noncustodial parent, who is typically a divorced or unmarried father who does not have joint legal physical custody of the child but often has visitation rights. In order to see their child's educational records, these parents have to show school administrators written proof, through court records or affidavits, that they pose no danger to the former spouse or child.

The process has to be repeated each year.

''It's a guilty until proven innocent law," said Ned Holstein, who heads Fathers & Families, a Boston-based fathers' advocacy group.

The state law came under scrutiny by federal education officials after they received a complaint from a divorced father from Milford who had been initially barred last summer from seeing his 17-year-old daughter's academic class schedule.

The father, Henry Fassler, said he had long been angered by the 1998 statute that created what he called extensive ''hoops" for divorced fathers to see their children's school records.

He said the law was initially the brainchild of some fathers' rights advocates who wanted a law spelling out the rights of parents to see school records related to their children.

But after battered-women's groups lobbied for changes, the measure was amended to include distinctions between custodial and noncustodial parents and legal proof of parent safety. These changes, Fassler said, transformed the law into an ''abuse-prevention bill."

Indignant as he was, Fassler said he didn't complain at his daughter's school, worried that another child still in elementary school might be embarrassed if he made a scene. Plus, Fassler said, his former wife, with whom he shares a positive relationship, voluntarily gave him access to all the records that she received.

''I was getting them anyway, so I figured why start trouble," said Fassler, 62, who works as a dentist in Wellesley.

But last August, when his daughter had a problem with her high school academic schedule, Fassler called the school to see her class list. When school officials balked on grounds that he was a noncustodial father, Fassler's anger over the law was renewed. He said his daughter, now old enough to understand the inequities, agreed that he had to speak his mind.

This led to his crusade to scrutinize the federal and state laws, prompting him to contact the Family Policy Compliance Office at the US Department of Education.

On May 6, LeRoy S. Rooker, director of the federal office, wrote a letter to Massachusetts education officials, saying their law violates federal rules allowing parents access to student records.

In his letter to Driscoll, the federal official said every state must allow parents the right to see educational records involving their children unless provided court orders or laws that ''specifically revokes these rights."

Nancy Scannell, director of government affairs for Jane Doe Inc., a nonprofit group that works to reduce domestic violence, who helped draft the 1998 bill, said she understands the legal concerns raised by federal officials and will eagerly participate in any discussion to rewrite the bill. But she emphasized that many fathers' advocates were at the negotiation table when the current bill was written, and women's groups like hers did not ''hijack" the legislation in any way.

Scannell said she understands that all parents want to be involved in their children's education and desire access to records, but that wish needs to be balanced against other parents' legitimate safety concerns.

''We may need to revisit the method," she said. ''But our intent was always a good one."

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