Texas school district seeking parental permission to release records for pending open-meetings suit

TEXAS — The legal dispute continues in a case that started with an act of censorship and turned into an open-meetings lawsuit as an attorney for the Danbury Independent School District is seeking parental permission to release student statements for use in the case.

The Facts, a Brazoria County newspaper that alleges the school board broke the law when it went into a closed-door session May 28, asked the district for copies of the complaint forms that students submitted calling for the redistribution of the December 2006 issue of the Danbury High School newspaper that the principal had withheld because of its content.

The district denied the newspaper’s request, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal statute that regulates schools’ release of records with identifying information about students.

But Charles Daughtry, attorney for The Facts, said the students’ identities are not a secret.

“Everybody in town knows who these students are,” he said.

The district claims FERPA prohibits it from releasing the documents unless the parents give permission.

Philip Fraissinet, an attorney representing Danbury schools, said the district is contacting the families to ask for consent to release the records. He said he expects the three families involved to make a decision within the “next couple of weeks.”

Daughtry said The Facts is seeking the documents to use in its lawsuit against the district. The newspaper filed the suit Wednesday, claiming the May 28 executive session in which the students met with board members in a closed-door meeting was not legal.

Fraissinet said the district followed its regular complaint procedure. The open-meetings law in Texas allows government officials to go into an executive session to hear complaints regarding personnel and to discuss whether personnel are fulfilling the duties of their jobs, he said.

“Those were the two exceptions at issue here,” he said.

Fraissinet also said the students were told before the meeting that they would speak during a closed session. He added that although the students entered the meeting alone, they could have had adult representation, including family members, if they wanted.

Daughtry said the personnel exemption is intended to allow the board members to discuss specific employees and their actions.

“They would have needed to be considering whether or not to punish the principal or the superintendent,” Daughtry said. “That wasn’t talked about for a moment, I’m sure.”

Daughtry said he suspects the students and the board members were discussing whether the newspaper content in question, including articles about teenage sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases and students with children, should have been distributed to high school students.

“And that needed to be debated out in the public,” he said.

By Jenny Redden, SPLC staff writer

  • Local newspaper sues Danbury School District over closed meeting News Flash, 3/27/2007
  • Danbury High School editor files complaint with principal News Flash, 1/26/2007
  • High school principal halts distribution of newspaper News Flash, 1/21/2007