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The University of Arkansas at Little Rock's assertion that it broke student-privacy laws by releasing some admissions data to one of its law-school professors means the educator's lawsuit against the school cannot proceed until potentially aggrieved former students are added to the suit, a Pulaski County circuit judge ruled on Monday.

Judge Tim Fox said the claim by administrators at the university's W.H. Bowen School of Law that they accidentally violated the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act in 2013 requires the former law students whose data were released to have legal representation in the lawsuit brought by law professor Robert Steinbuch.

"You all have folks ... who have rights that need to be adjudicated, and they need to be here," the judge told lawyers for the school and Steinbuch.

At least 100 ex-students have a potential interest in the litigation, the law school's dean told the judge on Monday. Fox said the law school cannot represent them.

"I'm not sure Bowen can be relied on to represent the affected parties," he told the university's lawyers, Sarah James and JoAnn Maxey.

Fox ordered Steinbuch to pick up the tab for the former students' legal representation, at least for now, because the court does not have sufficient grounds to make the university pay those costs.

"I see no other way to do this," Fox told Steinbuch and his attorney, Matt Campbell.

Steinbuch, a recognized authority on Arkansas' open-records law, is suing UALR because the law school dean, Michael Schwartz, has refused to fully release the student-admission data that Steinbuch requested in October under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

The request was the third time that Steinbuch sought the materials, which he uses for research into admissions standards for students who are members of minority groups. It's an effort that Steinbuch says Schwartz has endorsed, although the dean disputes Steinbuch's conclusions.

According to his lawsuit, Steinbuch specifically requested that the data exclude individual student identity, which the federal privacy law bars from public release. But he asked that the data include individual student ethnicity, law-school admission test scores and Bowen school grade-point averages. He said the data had already been compiled and used in a September presentation at a meeting of the law school's faculty.

The school first released that information to Steinbuch in 2012 after he requested it under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

But the school relented only after the Arkansas attorney general's office opined that releasing the data did not violate federal privacy law because students were not individually identified, the lawsuit states.

In November 2013, Schwartz granted Steinbuch's second request for the data. But for Steinbuch's third request last October for updated data, Schwartz withheld the information on student ethnicity, admission scores and grades, so the professor sued Schwartz and the university in November, arguing they were violating the open-records law.

Last month, university attorneys stated in court filings that the 2013 data release "erroneously" included information protected by the federal student-privacy law, although the prior release did not violate that law.

They argued that because some segments of the school's minority-group student population are so small, the only way to comply with both the federal law and the state Freedom of Information Act was for Schwartz to withhold ethnicity data.

Unless that racial information was withheld, Steinbuch could use his knowledge of the student body to figure out the identities of some minority-group students, the university attorneys argued.

Monday's hearing was for the judge to determine whether Steinbuch was entitled to a temporary restraining order against law-school administrators who were investigating complaints of racial bias and grading-policy violations against Steinbuch.

The professor accused administrators of using the investigation to question him about his litigation, testifying that he'd been investigated before he sued the school.

The judge denied the request because the investigation by law school Provost Zulma Toro was completed two days before the hearing, which negates Steinbuch's stated need for the restraining order.

Toro's inquiry cleared him of wrongdoing, Steinbuch said.

Steinbuch said he's twice been subjected to administration "inquisitions" since he filed his lawsuit, and those investigations form the basis of a retaliation complaint against administrators in his lawsuit.

Schwartz, the law school dean, testified that the administration has a legal obligation to investigate racial-bias complaints against its teachers.

Metro on 01/26/2016

Print Headline: Ruling: Students of law in suit now


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