The Iowa Supreme Court has upheld a lower court ruling blocking the release of information on how officials at Atlantic High School were disciplined after conducting a strip search on female students in August of 2009. The Iowa ACLU sued seeking to find out the punishment given the two school employees involved in the case.
The Iowa Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling 4-3, saying the punishment information was part of the school employees personnel record and exempt from the state Open Records Act. Three justices dissented in the case, including Chief Justice Mark Cady, who said the majority opinion takes “a step backward from the new age of open government in this state.”
Cady said while the legislature understands that confidentiality is needed in some aspects of government work, “the facts of this case reveal a substantial public justification for disclosure of the requested information.” ACLU executive director, Ben Stone, says the case is important beyond the impact it has on Atlantic.
“We are disappointed, it was a close decision 4-3 with Chief Justice Cady and two of Governor Branstad’s appointees with us in the dissent. You know this case really raises a phenomenal public interest in the right to know,” Stone says. Justices Waterman and Mansfield joined Cady in the dissent.
Stone says his organization was very specific in what they sought. “The school district announced the names of the two employees and said that they would be disciplined. And all we were seeking was what was the nature of that discipline. We weren’t looking for an entire performance record,” Stone says.
“And the Atlantic School District refused to turn that over and the Supreme Court has agreed with that conclusion and so now the people of Atlantic will probably never know what was done to stand up for the privacy and integrity of those girls. And that’s very disappointing.”
The majority of justices said there was not a need to balance the public’s need to know, with the right to privacy of the individuals. Stone argued the other side and was supported by the dissent.
“Chief Justice Cady really lays it out in the dissent, that we’ve been using a balancing test for 30 years and the majority opinion really denies that reality. Because when you are determining…whether or not something is personal in the language of the statute, you have to determine that by the context. And the context in essence is a balancing test,” according to Stone.
The dissent also said in essence, that transparency in government “will surely be thwarted” by those in government who say matters are related to personnel issues in an effort to keep them from being scrutinized by the public. Stone says the ACLU will seek to have the legislature change the law to keep that from happening.
“The 4-3 decision is a disappointment, but we’re not done,” Stone says. “We’re gonna do what we can to try to see to it where incidents like this where really outrageous and indefensible conduct by public employees is disciplined by the institution, that the public will be able to find out — in certain circumstances — what that type of discipline was.”
The strip search of the girls in a locker room came after a fellow student reported 100 dollars had been stolen from her purse. The money was not found and the district later announced the strip search was against school policy.
The district paid $300,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the families of three girls who were subject to the strip search.Atlantic assistant principal/activities director Paul Croghan one of the two employees identified by the district as being involved. Croghan later resigned from the district. The other employee was identified as Heather Turpen.
See the entire ruling here: Atlantic ISC ruling PDF