Judge orders release of settlement agreement in 'strip search' case that went to Supreme Court

ARIZONA — Nearlyeight years after the original incident, one legal footnote has been added to astoried case involving 13-year-old Savana Redding, who was strip-searched byschool officials looking for drugs.

That ordeal, which made its way up to the U.S. SupremeCourt in the case Safford Unified SchoolDistrict v. Redding,had its courtroom ending in 2009 with an 8-1 majority finding the schoolviolated the girl’s Fourth Amendment rights. A legal dispute then emerged afterthe school district refused to release details of its settlement with Redding toa journalist, claiming it was protected under the Family Educational Rights andPrivacy Act.

At the end of August, two years after the Supreme Court madeits decision, Judge D. Corey Sanders of the Superior Court of Graham County inArizona compelled the release of the $250,000 settlement deal in the case Matthew Heller vs. Safford Unified SchoolDistrict.

Heller, the editor of the legal news website On PointNews, said he originally sent the public records request — and subsequentlywent to court — to obtain the details because it involved a settlement withpublic money, which is of special interest to the public.

“With On Point, one thing we try to do is follow up onsettlements in cases involving public agencies,” Heller said. “I think this issomething mainstream media is very lax about. They’re very happy to report on asuit being filed, and then they just drop the ball when the case ends in asettlement.

Heller first requested the school district release thesettlement Jan. 5, 2010, and the district’s legal counsel David K. Pauole respondedwith a letter Jan. 20 denying the request because “the U.S. Department of Education hasspecifically determined that a settlement agreement is an education recordunder FERPA.”

But that claim had its doubters.

Christopher Moeser, one of Heller’s attorneys in the suit,said the reason did not stand up under scrutiny and the settlement does notqualify as an “educational record.”

The district cited a statement by the Department ofEducation “that isn’t part of the FERPA regulations,” Moeser said, “it’s not instatute, and doesn’t really squarely address the issue, which is whether thepublic has the right to inspect a settlement agreement where there is a paymentof public funds to resolve a lawsuit stemming from conduct by the district.”

Heller said the district’s rationale for withholding thesettlement under FERPA was releasing the details would “infringe on the privacyof Savanna Redding,” he said. “But what was there left that was private aboutit in this case? It was totally public knowledge.”

Moeser said “there’s case law that says FERPA doesn’tprotect information that’s already widely known or disseminated anyway,” andthe judge ruled in Heller’s favor for this reason.

Calls to a lawyer for the school district were notreturned by press time.

Details of the strip search came up during oral argumentsin front of the Supreme Court and can be found in the court’s opinion.Moeser said the details were already heavily publicized, Redding’s identity wasnot a secret, and she participated in media interviews.

“Really the only fact that was kept from the public wasthe amount of money paid by the district to settle the lawsuit,” he said. “Andfrankly once we saw the agreement, that was confirmed — there are noconfidential or private details in the resolution.”

With the details of the settlement out, Heller reflectedon the time it took for it to emerge and encourages persistence when faced withstonewalling public agencies.

“This should have been something the public knew abouttwo years ago,” Heller said. “I hope it sends a message in some way to schooldistricts and other agencies that they cannot keep doing this and puttingconfidentially clauses in front of an agreement where they’re spending taxpayer money. I hope it also motivates media groups to file these public recordsact requests when agencies make these things confidential, and if they deny it,then they should nail them to the wall.”