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AGO 1996 No. 1 - January 31, 1996
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Christine Gregoire | 1993-2004 | Attorney General of Washington

SUPERIOR COURTS--DISTRICT COURTS--JUVENILE COURTS--PUBLIC RECORDS‑SCHOOLS‑TRUANCY‑Confidentiality of juvenile court records in truancy cases

The records of a juvenile court in a truancy case are confidential and not available for public inspection and copying, with the limited exceptions listed in RCW 13.50.010 and 13.50.100.

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January 31, 1996

The Honorable Mary C. McQueen
Administrator for the Courts
P.O. Box 41170
Olympia, WA 98504-1170                                                                        Cite as:  AGO 1996 No. 1


Dear Ms. McQueen:

            By letter previously acknowledged, you have asked for our opinion on the following question:

Are superior court clerks and juvenile courts required by law to treat as confidential the pleadings and other records of truancy cases?

            For the reasons stated in the analysis below, we answer your question in the affirmative.

ANALYSIS

            As your letter states, your question is prompted by the enactment of chapter 312, Laws of 1995, a comprehensive bill dealing with non-offender at-risk youth and their families.  Sections 68 and 69 of chapter 312 revise the laws concerning truancy, and specifically direct school districts to file truancy petitions with the juvenile court on any student with more than five unexcused absences from school in a month or ten unexcused absences in a school year.[1] As a result of this legislation, you anticipate an increase in the truancy cases in the juvenile courts, which in turn may raise questions about the confidentiality of court records in such cases.

            The status of juvenile court records is not specifically addressed in chapter 312, but is the subject of a chapter of pre-existing law, chapter 13.50 RCW.[2] RCW 13.50.050 governs the confidentiality of records relating to the commission of juvenile offenses, and RCW 13.50.100  and RCW 13.50.100 "governs records not covered by RCW 13.50.050."

            At this point, we must consider whether truancy is a "juvenile offense" in order to determine which law governs confidentiality of records in truancy matters.  We conclude that truancy is not a juvenile offense.  Although RCW 13.50.050 does not define the term "juvenile offense," it contains several references to the closely related Juvenile Justice Act of 1977, codified as chapter 13.40 RCW.  RCW 13.40.020(19) defines "offense" as

an act designated a violation or a crime if committed by an adult under the law of this state, under any ordinance of any city or county of this state, under any federal law, or under the law of another state if the act occurred in that state[.]

The truancy laws, in turn, apply by definition only to persons under the age of eighteen.  RCW 28A.225.010(1).  Since an adult can never be truant, truancy could not be a "violation or crime if committed by an adult."  Furthermore, chapter 28A.225 RCW neither labels truancy a crime nor subjects truant children to criminal penalties.  For violations of RCW 28A.225.010 (the compulsory attendance laws), children are subject only to an order to attend school.  RCW 28A.225.090.[3] 

            Thus, we conclude that the confidentiality of juvenile court records in truancy cases is governed not by RCW 13.50.050, but by RCW 13.50.100 which by its own terms governs "records not covered by RCW 13.50.050."  RCW 13.50.100 generally makes records confidential and allows release "only pursuant to this section and RCW 13.50.010."[4] Since a juvenile court is defined as a "juvenile justice or care agency," and since truancy does not relate to a "juvenile offense," we conclude that they are rendered confidential by RCW 13.50.100, and may be released only to the extent permitted by that statute.[5]

            We find nothing in the enactment of chapter 312, Laws of 1995, showing any legislative intent to change prior law on this point.[6] Indeed, chapter 312 contains a provision that seems to assume that truancy records are confidential.  Section 72 of chapter 312 is a new section added to the truancy laws (now codified as RCW 28A.225.151) requiring each school to document actions taken pursuant to the compulsory attendance laws and make periodic reports.  Subsection (3) of RCW 28A.225.151 provides that "[a] report required under this section shall not disclose the name or other identification of a child or parent."  If juvenile court records relating to truancy were open for public inspection, it would make little sense for the Legislature to direct school districts to protect the identity of truant students and their parents.[7] 

            We trust the foregoing will be useful to you.

                                                                        Very truly yours,

                                                                        CHRISTINE O. GREGOIRE
                                                                        Attorney General


                                                                        JAMES K. PHARRIS
                                                                        Senior Assistant Attorney General


[1] Section 68, chapter 312, Laws of 1995, is an amendment to RCW 28A.225.030.  Section 69 is a new section which has been codified as RCW 28A.225.035.

[2] The confidentiality of court records is also potentially a subject for court rule.  The Washington Supreme Court has reserved adoption of rules in this area, in light of the statutes discussed in this opinion.  See JuCR 10.4, 5.  The Supreme Court interpreted the statutes as not rendering appellate court records confidential in In the Matter of the Dependency of J.B.S., 122 Wn.2d 131, 856 P.2d 694 (1993), but that case did not involve the confidentiality of district or superior court records. 

[3] RCW 28A.225.090 does permit fines against adults who violate the truancy laws--presumably parents or guardians who fail to send their children to school.  Students who disobey court orders to attend school are subject to detention or community service, but that does not make the underlying truancy a "crime" or change our conclusion that truancy is not a "juvenile offense" for purposes of chapters 13.40 or 13.50 RCW. 

[4] The exceptions currently permitted in RCW 13.50.100 allow: release of records to other juvenile justice agencies currently investigating or supervising the juvenile; release to the juvenile, his or her parents and attorneys, with certain exceptions; and, release to parties to an action declaring dependency or termination of a parent-child relationship, in certain circumstances.  RCW 13.50.010 allows inspections of records (if permitted by a court), by clinics, hospitals, or agencies with the subject-person under care or treatment, and access to individuals and agencies conducting research for educational, scientific, or public purposes (so long as the anonymity of the persons mentioned in the records is preserved).  RCW 13.50.010 also contains procedures allowing persons to challenge the status of juvenile records, or to seek judicial review of denials of access to such records.

[5]Your question is about court records alone, and we do not reach here questions about the confidentiality of records maintained by school districts or other agencies.

[6] Another bill passed by the 1995 Legislature--Laws of 1995, ch. 311, § 15--did slightly amend RCW 13.50.100, but did not change the basic rule of confidentiality.

[7]Quite aside from state statute, some of the records which school districts would be required to file with the court in a truancy case are probably also required by the federal Family Educational Rights and Private Act (FERPA) to be held confidential.  See 20 U.S.C. § 1232g as implemented by U.S. Department of Education Regulations at 34 C.F.R. part 99.  We will not attempt to analyze the precise coverage of this federal law.

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