Sebastian Ridley-Thomas files student right complaint to Department of Education

Sebastian Ridley-Thomas filed a FERPA complaint to the U.S. Department of Education, claiming that USC released confidential information about his scholarship and enrollment to the L.A. Times. (Photo from WikiMedia Commons)

Former state legislator Sebastian Ridley-Thomas filed a complaint against USC to the U.S. Department of Education alleging student right violations, according to documents obtained by the Daily Trojan.

The complaint, which was filed in late September, comes after Ridley-Thomas accused USC of disclosing confidential student data to the Los Angeles Times. Some of the data disclosed included the legislator’s status as a student and information about his hiring as a professor and his scholarship for a master’s degree at the Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

“Since we have no way of knowing if USC questioned the persons who knew about the scholarship or took other steps to learn the source of the disclosure, we will rely on the federal authorities at the Department of Education to investigate this issue,” Porter Scott, Ridley-Thomas’ attorney, wrote in a letter to University Counsel Dawn Kennedy on Oct. 5.

USC denied the allegations in a letter to Scott on Oct. 2, explaining that “any individuals authorized to speak on behalf of the University … would not have shared information in violation of [the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act].”

The act, commonly referred to as FERPA, 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.”

The law also suggests that schools have permission to disclose, without consent, directory information such as student names, addresses, 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.”

Kennedy informed Scott and Ridley-Thomas on Oct. 2 that his complaints were reviewed by the Office of Student Affairs, and that the office determined that “these matters do not fall within the scope of the student grievance process” denoted under the University’s Student Conduct Code.

In August, Lance Olson, one of Ridley-Thomas’ attorneys, wrote to the University that he was concerned that the Los Angeles Times was informed of a confidential interview prior to Ridley-Thomas’ hiring.

“That information could only have come from one of the three persons from USC who participated in the interview,” he wrote.

Ridley-Thomas’ complaint to the Department of Education comes after stories from the Times about the former legislator’s resignation from the state Assembly. The Daily Trojan also published a story last month that suggested that administrators at the School of Social Work were aware of Ridley-Thomas’ status as a student when he was hired as a faculty member — a conflict that led to his firing.

“Like all other new students and people who are offered employment, Mr. Ridley-Thomas relied on the deans and academic administrators at USC to know and follow the university’s rules,” Olson wrote in a September email to the Daily Trojan. “Naturally, he believed that everything was in order.”

In early August, the Times reported that Ridley-Thomas joined the School of Social Work faculty while pursuing his master’s degree 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 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 said in a statement to the Daily Trojan in August.

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’ attorneys denied any connection between the donation from Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sebastian’s enrollment and employment at the University.