CHEYENNE — Inquisitive minds will have to keep waiting to read a currently sealed report of an investigation into racist and homophobic student activity at Cheyenne’s McCormick Junior High School.
On Monday, Laramie County District Judge Peter Froelicher inched forward the litigation that has stalled the release of the report for more than a year.
It’s still unclear, however, what parts of the report – which is known to have uncovered “some” instances of bullying among McCormick students over time and a failure by staff to properly investigate – will be redacted when the court finally releases it.
After racist and homophobic flyers were found at the school in March 2019, Laramie County School District 1 conducted an internal investigation into both that incident and the larger school climate.
However, when the Wyoming Tribune Eagle requested a copy of the final report, which it perceives as a freely accessible public document, the district refused, citing student privacy concerns 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, WTE’s parent company, APG Media of the Rockies LLC, 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 for release of the document. They argued that FERPA-applicable information doesn’t necessarily allow the district to withhold the entirety of the report from media outlets or the general public.
Two months ago, Judge Froelicher agreed, and found the district failed to prove that “the final report was exempted from inspection.” He has since undertaken his own redaction of the document, and given a copy to both the district and the petitioners before it is released to the public.
When they saw they court’s redacted version of the report, lawyers for the school district argued for heavier redactions, which they say is in an effort to remove further information that could identify the student. The district has already identified a lone offender, and that person is likely known to at least some McCormick students and staff.
The petitioners filed an objection, arguing that “the district has not explained how the information (in the proposed redactions) would make the student’s identity (known) to the general public without personal knowledge of the events.”
On Monday afternoon, a hearing was held via teleconference to try to settle those redaction disputes and move closer to releasing the report for public view.
The district’s lawyers had filed a request to close the hearing to the public for the purpose of protecting the identity of the student who posted the flyers, according to O’Kelley Pearson, one of the attorneys representing the district.
“The district’s resistance to release of the report – and now individual information about one student – is for the right reason. From its inception, the district’s motivation has been to protect students,” Pearson told Froelicher. “We do feel that there are federal guidelines and laws that are driving our decisions as the custodians of the records and our careful approach to releasing the information.”
According to the U.S. Department of Education, FERPA guidelines prevent districts from releasing student information that includes both direct identifiers, such as a name or identification number, and indirect identifiers, like a birth date – or “other information which can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity, either directly or indirectly through linkages with other information.”
Froelicher confirmed during the hearing that he has redacted all names, Social Security numbers and other obvious identifiers.
No closed hearing
But a clerical oversight prevented the judge from considering the district’s request to close Monday’s hearing until it was already underway.
Weighing that decision – on a case that’s already spotlighting the issue of public access to information – consumed the majority of the scheduled 30-minute meeting.
“We understand that the report will be made public, but we’re going to be talking today about one individual student,” Pearson told Froelicher. “The issue boils down to whether the information the district is seeking to additionally redact is personally identifiable information. Until the court rules on that, we believe this hearing should be closed.”
Froelicher asked if Pearson intended to use the student’s name at Monday’s hearing.
“No,” she said. “But we are limiting this discussion to one student. The specific information we’re seeking redacted identifies that one student and could be linked and tied to someone the school community personally knows.”
Bruce Moats, the lawyer representing APG and its media partners, argued that closing the hearing seemed unnecessary.
“I think we can speak and make the arguments about (redactions) without having to reveal what’s in those disputed redactions,” Moats told Froelicher.
“Not only is our contention that what the court plans to release would not identify the student, it’s also a balancing act with the public interest. One of the things the school district professed it wanted to do was to look at this to see if it was an isolated situation or part of a culture. I think the information that the court did not redact that the district wants redacted really (speaks) to that issue and is important for the community to know.”
Froelicher, who denied the motion for a closed hearing, said he would soon issue a final opinion.
After the court releases its opinion, both parties will have the chance to appeal. If that happens, the report will remain sealed until the courts make a final ruling.