Former State Legislator Sebastian Ridley-Thomas accuses USC of violating student privacy under FERPA

Former state legislator Sebastian Ridley-Thomas has accused USC of violating his rights as a student by disclosing private information to the media, the latest development in a string of controversies surrounding the Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and Ridley-Thomas.

The accusation follows reports from the Los Angeles Times that Ridley-Thomas, a former member of the state Assembly, was hired as a professor and given a scholarship to pursue his master’s degree at the University, while a $100,000 donation from his father, a prominent local politician, was funneled from USC to a think tank led by Ridley-Thomas.

In a letter dated Aug. 8 obtained by the Daily Trojan, Ridley-Thomas’ attorney Lance Olson alleged that a USC staff member disclosed the former legislator’s status as a student, scholarship and financial aid information to the Times.

Olson wrote that the Times “appeared to have been given information that is personally identifiable”  to Ridley-Thomas and that he had never authorized the release of that information, including the fact that Ridley-Thomas had been interviewed by the University’s Office of Compliance.

“Of particular concern is the fact the Times was clearly told of the Compliance Office interview of my client,” Olson wrote. “That information could only have come from one of the three persons from USC who participated in the interview.”

USC declined to comment on the contents of the letter. However, in a statement to the Daily Trojan earlier this month, Chairman of the Board of Trustees Rick Caruso said he was “disturbed and concerned” by the allegations against Ridley-Thomas.

“The University disclosed this matter promptly to the United States Attorney’s Office and is cooperating with them,” Caruso said about donation questions.

The Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act, a law passed in 1974, states that schools receiving federal funding “must have written permission from the parent or eligible student in order to release any information from a student’s education record.”

However, the law also suggests that schools have permission to disclose, without consent, directory information such as student names, addresses and honors and awards, but that they must also provide a “reasonable amount of time to request that the school not disclose directory information about them.”

The letter from Ridley-Thomas’ attorney comes after a slew of stories from the Times regarding the former legislator’s resignation from the state Assembly and his role at the University.

The Times reported earlier this month that following his resignation from the state Assembly due to medical concerns, Ridley-Thomas joined the School of Social Work faculty, while also pursuing his master’s degree at the same school under a full-tuition scholarship.

During this time, the Times reported that his father, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, made a $100,000 donation from his campaign fund to the School of Social Work, which was later funneled to a think tank unaffiliated with USC and led by  his son Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.

“We do not believe that it raises any legal or ethical issues, and it had nothing to do with his son’s scholarship or employment at the University,” Mark Ridley-Thomas’ attorney Stephen Kaufman said in a statement to the Daily Trojan earlier this month.

Following the disclosure of this transaction, USC put former School of Social Work dean Marilyn Flynn on leave, fired Sebastian Ridley-Thomas and forwarded the details about the donation to a federal agency.

Sebastian Ridley-Thomas still appears as a student of the School’s online degree program in the USC directory but does not appear as a faculty member.

The Times also reported that Sebastian Ridley-Thomas had been under investigation for sexual harassment when he stepped down from the Assembly and joined USC’s administration. A source told the Times that USC was unaware of this investigation when it hired the former legislator.