The Iowa Court of Appeals has ruled the Atlantic School District does not have to release records on the discipline of two employees involved in a controversial strip search of students. The court says the information is part of confidential employee records.
The alleged strip searches were conducted on five teenage girls during a gym class in August of 2009 after another student reported that $100 had been stolen from her. Atlantic assistant principal/activities director Paul Croghan resigned in November, and was one of the two employees identified by the district as being involved. The other employee was identified as Heather Turpen, but nothing was said about their punishment.
Iowa ACLU executive director, Ben Stone, says they will seek further review from the Iowa Supreme Court. Stone says they are “troubled” by the way the appeals court interpreted the law, as it “makes it likely that school districts and other government entities are gonna have an incentive to keep some employees that are engaged in bad or negligent conduct on staff in order to keep things secret.”
He says the interpretation allows employers to hide behind the law protecting confidential employee records. Stone says if an employee is fired, the public can learn the reasons for the firing through the open records law. But, he says if the employee is not fired, then the information does not have to be distributed to the public. Stone says this case is not about an every day review of an employee’s performance.
Stone says they argued that this is a very specific incident where the district has voluntarily identified the people involved and the basic facts. “So this is not like going on a fishing expedition to find out which employees might be doing something that the public doesn’t like, this is a very specific situation,” Stone says. Stone says they believe the specific situation should be weighed against the employee’s rights to determine if the information should be released.
Stone says they are looking for a situation “where the public’s right to know is properly balanced.” He says one of the justices on the appeals court agreed with them, so they are encouraged and will try to get the Iowa Supreme Court to take the case.
Atlantic Superintendent, Mike Amstein says he thinks the decision “Affirms the District’s Court’s Decision on the Open Records Issue, and that’s good news for the district to hear,” so it can move on with the “business of educating.” There was one dissenting opinion, but Amstein says the ruling is strong.
Amstine says the decision speaks for itself, that the district court was correct in its findings. Amstein commented on the possible appeal by the ACLU. He says the opportunity is there for them to appeal, but he’s just glad for right now the decision has been affirmed.
The majority ruling of the court said “We acknowledge the public interest in open access to governmental records and the conflict between access and the interest in protecting privacy rights of employees. But we agree with the district court that any expansion of the public’s right to these records is a matter for the legislature to determine.”
Justice Amanda Potterfield disagreed with the majority ruling. She said ” While the disciplinary measures may implicitly contain information regarding the job performances of the two individual employees, the privacy interests implicated here, the measures relate most directly to the response of the school district in which the public has a legitimate interest.
My analysis of the decisions of the Iowa Supreme Court in cases involving the exemption to our open records law for “personal information in personnel records” leads me to believe disclosure of the narrow piece of information requested by the ACLU should not be categorically denied under the circumstances here.”
Ric Hanson, KJAN, Atlantic contributed to this story.
See the entire ruling here:Atlantic case PDF