School district asks California Supreme Court to review records decision

CALIFORNIA — A school district has petitioned the state supreme court to review a decision in which a lower court granted a newspaper access to records it says will violate students’ privacy.

In April 2004, parental complaints surfaced claiming that former Dunsmuir Joint Union High School Superintendent Bob Morris physically abused and bullied students. A month later, the school hired an investigator to look into the allegations while Morris took a leave of absence. The investigator’s report consisted of several interviews with students and parents who raised concerns about Morris’ behavior. The compiled report consisted of 257 pages of interview records, a 38-page summary and notes.

During his time off, the school increased Morris’ salary and bought out his contract, which the California 3rd District Court of Appeal referred to in its decision to open the records as a “sweetheart deal.”

The Record Searchlight, the local newspaper in Redding, Calif., a town south of Dunsmuir, requested the investigator’s reports, but the school refused, claiming they were not public record. The newspaper sued the school district in August 2004.

“The taxpayers and students have a right to know what the deal was, what the allegations were and so on,” Record Searchlight Editor Kelly Brewer said.

The Superior Court of Siskiyou County initially denied the newspaper access to the reports, but the newspaper appealed to the 3rd District Court of Appeal, which declared them public record.

Walter McNeil, the newspaper’s attorney, said the decision uses the “standard otherwise used in invasion of privacy cases” and applies it to obtaining public records.

“A person who has deliberately made themselves a public figure can’t expect the same degree of privacy about how they carry out their job than an ordinary person would expect,” McNeil said.

Last month, the school asked the Court of Appeal to clarify what version of the school report was to be disclosed. The court ruled that all versions of the report pertaining to the Morris investigation were to be disclosed and also denied the school district a rehearing.

Earlier this month, the school district asked the California Supreme Court to review the case. School Board President Jan Garrigus said she opposes disclosing the report to maintain the privacy of the students involved.

“By requesting the release of this document, the Record Searchlight has compromised the students’ rights to privacy,” Garrigus said.

Len Foreman, superintendent and principal of the high school, said he supports the school district’s attempt to keep the reports private.

“I understand the public’s desire to know what’s going on in a high profile institution,” Foreman said. “But the board made its decision based entirely upon maintaining the privacy of students.”

Brewer said she disagrees because students, especially students learning how to become journalists, benefit from this case.

“As student and professional journalists we have a duty to press these issues, to keep records open,” Brewer said. “I hope it encourages everybody to press for open government and public records.”

The school district’s petition for review was filed on Nov. 7. The California Supreme Court has 60 days to decide whether or not to hear the case.