Judge: Public has right to know details of McCormick investigation

CHEYENNE – The public may soon know exactly what Laramie County School District 1 found during its internal investigation into racist and homophobic flyers posted last year at Cheyenne’s McCormick Junior High School.

That’s because Laramie County District Judge Peter Froelicher granted a motion for summary judgment filed by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and its media partners in its lawsuit against the district. The decision comes after a nearly year-long legal battle, which hinged on the public’s right to view the district’s final report of an internal investigation into bullying and the school’s response at McCormick.

“If you look at the public interest at the time – that it even got national attention – it speaks for itself,” said Bruce Moats, the Cheyenne media attorney who represented the WTE and other plaintiffs in the case. “It’s not only what happened, it’s why it happened. What kind of investigation did the school district do, and how has it informed their response since then?”

Those were the questions the Wyoming Tribune Eagle was looking to answer when it requested a copy of the final report, which it interpreted as a public record, shortly after the investigation concluded last spring.

State statute defines a public record as “any written communication or other information, whether in paper, electronic, or other physical form, received by the state or any agency.”

The law further states that all public records “shall be open for inspection by any person at reasonable times, during business hours of the state entity or political subdivision.”

Although all 48 public school districts in the state are beholden to Wyoming’s public records laws, LCSD1 refused to release the records, citing, among other reasons, student privacy laws under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The federal law authorizes public agencies, like a public school district, to redact certain personal identifying information contained within public records.

In response to the district’s decision to withhold the report, rather than release a redacted copy, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, which is owned by APG Media of the Rockies, joined with Associated Press; Gray Television, which owns KGWN-TV; Townsquare Media, which owns radio station KGAB; and the Wyoming Liberty Group to sue the district.

The petitioners argued that FERPA-applicable information doesn’t necessarily allow the district to withhold the entirety of the record to media outlets or the general public.

After reviewing the report itself, Judge Froelicher agreed, and found that the district failed to prove that “the final report was exempted from inspection.”

Froelicher did acknowledge the need to redact some identifying information, like names and addresses, pursuant to FERPA, but took issue with the “additional and broader redactions” the district suggested in the redacted version it provided to the court, along with the full report.

Now, Froelicher said he will undertake his own redaction of the report. After the redacted report is reviewed by the school district and the media outlets that brought the case, each party has 10 days to file an objection, according to court documents.

“We don’t apologize for trying to protect our students and staff. We understand the need for disclosure of public records. I just hope this doesn’t reduce the likelihood of students and or staff reporting” future bullying or other misconduct issues, LCSD1 Superintendent Boyd Brown said Monday.

Lawyers representing the school district could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Moats, however, said he doesn’t anticipate the case will chill reporting of misbehavior in schools. 

“Skepticism that the district would really listen is much more of a hindrance to reporting than it is fear of some kind of publicity,” he said.

From Moats’ perspective, the outcome of the case is an example of “a public right being upheld,” he said. “This is also a message to the public that they shouldn’t just throw up their hands. They should insist on their right to know.”

Barring the district’s appeal of the redacted report, it should be available for public viewing in the next month.

WTE Managing Editor Brian Martin said he was pleased with the judge’s decision, and looks forward to being able to let readers know what the report says.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the school district’s constituents – parents, students and other residents – to decide whether the district did a thorough job in their internal investigation of the culture at McCormick,” Martin said. “But by withholding the report, the district was saying, ‘Trust us.’ I’m sorry, but based on what we heard from current and former students after the flyers were discovered, we just couldn’t do that.

“This is the local media once again stepping up to fulfill its primary role to hold government officials accountable, and I thank our partners for joining us in this important effort.”