Many high school students are not sinking their journalisticchops into meaty stories, and it may be because many are not using publicrecords for their research, said Diana Mitsu Klos, senior project director forthe American Society of Newspaper Editors.
“It’s simply amatter of understanding your basic rights and how useful [public records are] inresearching and telling stories,” Mitsu Klos said. “It’s aboutbeing able to do the type of stories that go below thesurface.”
To help high school student journalists “gobelow the surface,” the Student Press Law Center has compiled someexamples of stories from recent years where journalists used open records at thehigh school level to dig deeper.
Each of these cases was based onthe individual state open records law, so the conclusion might not be the samein every state. But these cases may give high school journalists ideas of thekinds of records they could be seeking to better cover theirschool.
A state appeals court in Washington State ruled in2005 that school districts must release sexual harassment complaints filedagainst teachers unless the claims have been proved false.
The casewent to the appeals court after The Seattle Times sought sexual harassmentrecords about teachers in the 10 largest Washington school districts.The Times planned on using the records aspart of a series on coaches who work in Washington schools after beingreprimanded or dismissed for sexual harassment.
According to anarticle in The Times, after the newspaper requestedthe public records, teachers in three different districts filed injunctionsagainst the districts to prevent their names from being released. They arguedreleasing their names would violate their privacy.
The appeals courtjudge ruled that the records must be released under the state open records law,even if the sexual misconduct claims were unsubstantiated.
The Times series, called “Coaches WhoPrey,” revealed that nearly 100 Washington coaches continued to teach orcoach after being reprimanded for sexualmisconduct.
A settlement between a former high schoolnewspaper adviser and the Indiana school district that fired him was made publicthanks to media outlets requesting the information under a state open recordslaw.
In November 2004, Franklin Central High School student newspaperadviser Chad Tuley was suspended on charges of insubordination for allowing thepaper to run a crime story despite administrators’ directions not to printit. The story dealt with a 17-year-old Franklin student who was arrested at theschool and charged with murder in connection with a stabbing and beating deathof a 67-year-old man.
In 2005, the Indianapolis Star and the Student PressLaw Center received copies of the confidential the settlement that ruled inTuley’s favor. The settlement was acquired by the Student Press Law Centerfollowing an Indiana Open Records Law request filed with the school districtsuperintendent’s office.
Terms of the settlement included thedistrict paying Tuley’s attorney’s fees, the remainder of his salaryfor the 2005-2006 school year and a lump sum of $40,000.
One of theincentives of a settlement rather than a lawsuit is that there is supposedlyless publicity. But settlements involving public institutions, such as a schooldistrict, cannot remain confidential, SPLC Legal Fellow Adam Goldsteinsaid.
“Keeping settlements confidential, is withholdinginformation about the spending of public money,” Goldstein said.
Resumes of jobcandidates
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that a publicschool district must provide resumes of candidates of those seeking a school joband must do so in a timelymanner.
This WeekWorthington, a Columbus-area weekly newspaper, had sued the WorthingtonCity School District after the school board delayed providing a reporter all theresumes of candidates for treasurer.
In its decision, the court saidthe school district had no reason not to fill the paper’s request in a timelymanner. “The requested resumes here were readily available, not voluminous, andcould have been provided … the same day that [its] initial three requests weremade,” the court wrote.
A Wisconsin appellate court ruled in 2002 that aschool board must release its evaluation of a former superintendent under itsstate open records law.
The Wisconsin Court of Appeals for the 3rdCircuit upheld a previous state circuit court decision holding that the publicinterest in access to an evaluation made of a former Rhinelander school districtsuperintendent outweighed any potential damage to hisreputation.
Prior to its decision not to renew the superintendent’scontract, the board conducted an evaluation of him. After The Rhinelander Daily News filed anopen-records request for the document in spring 2000, the school board notifiedthe former superintendent and he filed suit seeking to block release of thedocument.
The court of appeals held that media reports of thesuperintendent being placed on paid leave had already adversely affected hisreputation and that the public’s right to know why the board acted to not renewhis contract outweighed the superintendent’s interest in protecting hisreputation.
Check the Student Press Law Center’s Web site tomorrow to read about how the student journalist’s quest for open records and the university’s quest for donations have proved at odds. The SPLC is running a story each day this week highlighting open records issues specific to student journalists in celebration of Sunshine Week.