News

How The Telegraph reported the school discipline stories

These stories were reported over five months, using public records and dozens of interviews with current and former Bibb County educators.

Most of the numbers used in the articles came from data the school district is required by Georgia law to report to the state Department of Education.

The Telegraph also checked court records, school system e-mails and a consultant’s school safety assessment obtained under Georgia’s Open Records Act, as well as current and past Bibb school system codes of conduct.

The Telegraph tried to examine more public records to better analyze discipline trends, but the Bibb County school system denied access to some records in its possession.

In June, for example, The Telegraph sought copies of campus police incident reports related to weapons over the past two school years. Randy Howard, the school district’s in-house attorney, indicated that there were 131 of these reports.

The Telegraph has not seen the reports because Howard said they would have to be redacted to comply with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which governs the confidentiality of student education records.

However, FERPA itself states that the law does not apply to records maintained by a law enforcement agency that were created for law enforcement purposes. In addition, juvenile records related to carrying or possession of a weapon near school property are public under the law.

Nevertheless, the school system proposed to charge The Telegraph almost $1,500 to remove personally identifying information from the incident reports. The Telegraph did not consent to pay for removing legally public information.

Attorneys for the school district have indicated that they intend to seek guidance from the state attorney general about what aspects of police incident reports are public record.

In April, the Telegraph sought copies of the forms generated when a student is sent to the principal’s office. The paper requested these for high schools and middle schools over two school years. In a separate request, The Telegraph sought records related to disciplinary hearings for the same time frame.

The goal was to use this information to look for statistical patterns, such as the percentage of expulsions related to certain types of behaviors.

Although the school district initially indicated it had gathered the records and would produce them, it reversed itself a week later, contending that the records contained too much identifying information.

The district did offer to provide a breakdown of the number of evidentiary hearings held in the district by year, and it eventually provided more years and school-by-school analysis than requested.

In addition, the school system also offered in August to create a document that would include much of the statistical information The Telegraph had sought about evidentiary hearings. Since four months had already passed, however, The Telegraph responded that it had to move ahead with the story.

The school district fulfilled some Telegraph records requests, although most of them were fulfilled late.

Georgia’s Open Records Act allows those who hold public records up to three days to produce them or, if more time is needed, to give a timeline for doing so.

On April 27, The Telegraph requested communications from Assistant Superintendent Ed Judie related to discipline. The district responded within three days and provided some e-mails on May 8. However, when The Telegraph pointed out that some of these were partial or missing attachments, the district searched again and provided additional documents May 29, waiving copying fees.

The district also took almost three weeks to produce a copy of the Safe Havens International report on student discipline that The Telegraph had requested, repeatedly missing deadlines the district had set itself for providing the report.

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

  Comments