Telegraph: Bibb school system must stop breaking open records law

The Telegraph sent a letter to the Bibb County school system Tuesday demanding that it comply with state open records laws in the wake of a series of alleged violations.

Officials with the Bibb County school system declined to comment on the letter or its allegations by the close of business Wednesday.

Among several examples, the letter documents the school district’s repeatedly failing to even begin gathering records by the time the law requires them to be produced, as well as failing to make and stick to timelines for eventually producing the records. The district has also refused to provide campus police incident reports without cutting out information that is legally public.

“We demand that the district bring itself into compliance with the (Open Records Act) immediately or face legal action,” states the letter, signed by attorney Walter Bush. “We understand that the Attorney General’s Office has previously addressed the district’s noncompliance with the (Open Records Act), and by copy of this letter, we inform him that the situation has not been remedied.”

Officials with the state Attorney General’s Office acknowledged receipt of the Telegraph’s letter Wednesday. After previous Telegraph complaints, the office already offered the school system training on Georgia’s new sunshine laws in early May.

“The Telegraph will continue to fight vigorously for access to public records,” said Sherrie Marshall, the newspaper’s executive editor. “We’ve taken our complaints to the Attorney General’s Office, and we plan to keep the heat on the district to ensure that it follows the law. If all else fails, we’ll have to consider our legal options.”

In response to various records requests, the district has refused to allow Telegraph reporters to inspect records rather than paying for copies, which is contrary to the provisions of the law; it produced only partial documents until challenged, and it took a month to produce them all; and over the course of a week, it changed cost estimates for the same request from about $200 to $1,500, according to the letter.

The letter cites four open record requests filed by The Telegraph seeking access to information about how the district handles student discipline. But these are only the most recent in a string of instances in which the district has failed to produce public records in compliance with the law, the letter states.

In one example cited in the letter, the district initially agreed in early May to produce information about disciplinary hearings and even gathered the information, but a week later refused to release it.

In this and other cases the system’s in-house attorney, Randy Howard, said general information about student discipline incidents -- even with students’ names blacked out -- could not be provided without violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, in case even a student’s parent could identify the child from the description.

However, The Telegraph letter notes that FERPA specifically states that it covers just information such as a student’s Social Security number or address that “is linkable to a specific student that would allow a reasonable person in the school community who does not have personal knowledge of the relevant circumstances to identify the student with reasonable certainty.”

The same information The Telegraph requested was provided for years to Bibb County school board members during public meetings. Even when Superintendent Romain Dallemand changed that policy, he stated in an e-mail to board members that he could still provide “de-identified” discipline reports without violating FERPA.

In response to a May 31 Telegraph request for campus police incident reports related to weapons found in schools, the district proposed to charge The Telegraph about $1,500. According to an itemized list from the school system, the cost was mostly to cover legal fees for Howard’s time spent removing information from the records to comply with FERPA.

(For the same request, over the course of a week the district said costs would be around $200, then “at least $500” with payment up front despite no total cost estimate, then finally the estimated $1,500.)

However, The Telegraph would essentially be paying for redactions that the law does not allow, Bush said in the Telegraph letter. FERPA doesn’t even apply to campus police records, he said. It specifically exempts “records maintained by a law enforcement unit of the education agency.”

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.