By Ramsey Scott and Chrissy Suttles
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
Experts in Wyoming public records law say Laramie County School District 1 officials have no legal basis for denying public access to McCormick Junior High's report on bullying.
The district announced it had wrapped up its investigation into harassment and bullying at the school last week, issuing a one-page statement to parents, staff and journalists revealing "some" instances of bullying at McCormick over time. The report also noted administrators didn't always follow district policy for reporting these incidents.
Now that LCSD1 has concluded its month-long probe into homophobic and racist flyers distributed at McCormick in March, members of the public, especially parents of McCormick students, have told the Wyoming Tribune Eaglethey want to know more about the investigation.
The report could reveal vital information, such as: How many parents, students and staff members the district spoke to; What those conversations suggest about a culture of bullying; How many students were involved with the flyers incident, and whether LCSD1's action plan to address harassment is sufficient to tackle systemic issues.
LCSD1 Superintendent Boyd Brown has declined to release a redacted version of the report more than half a dozen times, prompting the Wyoming Tribune Eagleto submit a public records request for the documents Wednesday.
"The report has student names and information in it, as well as personnel information," Brown said. "It's confidential information, and I can't release it."
LCSD1 Board Chairwoman Marguerite Herman said she and her fellow trustees hadn't discussed whether more of the report should be made public. The board was given a four-page executive summary of the findings.
District administrators seem primarily concerned with violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, a federal law protecting student records and privacy. Schools that release records or personally-identifiable information are subject to federal funding cuts. This information could include a student's name, address, birth date or other details to reasonably identify someone.
A desire to protect FERPA rights is understandable, but school districts often use the law as a shield when denying access to public information, said Cheyenne-based media attorney Bruce Moats, who often represents newspapers, including the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
"Under FERPA, they can redact student information," Moats said. "The courts have held they can redact. As long as they can take the identifying information of a student out of there, then they can release the report or document."
Moats said state and federal public records laws are written with the presumption the public has a right to access government documents and information, pointing to various Wyoming Supreme Court decisions siding with the public.
Cassie Craven, an attorney with the Wyoming Liberty Group, agreed that using student confidentiality to conceal a report on harassment was not FERPA's intended purpose.
Craven helped write the new public records law passed by the state Legislature this session, which is set to go into effect July 1.
"I personally have had a case where a school district relied heavily on FERPA to exclude records altogether, and that's not the purpose (of the law)," she said. "You can redact the student's name and other factors to protect privacy.
"The public certainly has a right to know, especially when we're talking about systemic bullying of children. This is what the public records law is designed to do," she said. "So, trying to shoehorn an exception (like this) is not OK."
The Wyoming Tribune Eagle also has asked LCSD1 to confirm whether former McCormick Principal Jeff Conine is still employed by the district. Officials announced Conine was no longer in charge of the school April 26, but declined to explain the circumstances of his departure. Brown calls it a personnel matter that prevents him from disclosing employment details.
But both Craven and Moats said the status of a government employee is explicitly considered public information.
While the law allows school boards or other government entities to make hiring and firing decisions in executive session, the results of those meetings should be open. This includes changes to a public employee's existing contract.
"After the fact, after somebody has been terminated or moved to a new position, then it would be public record. You can't lock in secrecy all personnel outcomes," Craven said. "And you certainly can't lock in secrecy the systematic bullying that may be occurring."
McCormick has been the subject of statewide scrutiny since March 27, when homophobic and racist flyers were handed out and put up in the hallway by students. The flyers helped reveal a longtime culture of bullying at the school.
Public outcry over the flyers and the district's response prompted demands the LCSD1 Board of Trustees investigate discrimination and bullying at the school and provide a culturally competent mental health professional to students. LCSD1 released an action plan following the investigation.
The plan includes an examination of district policy for investigating complaints, and district-wide training on reporting and investigating harassment, bullying, sexual harassment and other incidents.