Epilogue to Phoebe Prince bullying case: Litigation settlements with school districts are public record

A Massachusetts judge’s ruling involving the suicide of a teen bullying victim is the latest reaffirmation that school districts cannot lawfully enter into confidential agreements to conceal settlement payments from the public.

In a Dec. 23 order, Superior Court Judge Mary-Lou Rup ordered the release of documents memorializing the terms of a settlement that resolved a civil-rights complaint between the family of Phoebe Prince and the Town of South Hadley. Phoebe’s January 2010 death shone a disturbing light on hateful behavior — in person and on social-networking sites — that led to criminal charges against six classmates blamed for provoking the 15-year-old’s suicide.

Attorney/journalist Emily Bazelon, who writes for the online journal Slate, sought access to the settlement documents under the Massachusetts Public Records Law. The town’s attorney denied her request, claiming that the document did not involve public business because the payment to the Prince family came from the town’s insurance company, not directly from taxpayers.

Bazelon then filed suit with the assistance of counsel from the ACLU of Western Massachusetts. Neither the school district nor the Prince family actively fought the disclosure in court, which weighed in the judge’s conclusion that no significant privacy interests were at risk.

“Apart from its assertion that the documents are not public records and that disclosure of these documents could harm the Prince family who agreed to keep the terms of their settlement confidential, the Town has not shown any possible harm that would flow from the disclosure of the documents,” Rup wrote in her order, noting the strong presumption under open-records law in favor of opening government records to public scrutiny unless a specific exemption applies.

The town chose not to appeal and immediately turned over the documents, which show that the Prince family received $225,000 to drop a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination alleging the school responded inadequately to gender-based harassment.

Bazelon’s coverage of the Prince case has been the most thorough and nuanced of any journalist’s. Her reporting has raised questions about the media-accepted narrative that Phoebe was “bullied to death,” highlighting the history of psychological problems and suicide attempts that predated her arrival at South Hadley High School.

The Prince ruling comes shortly after a similar decision from an Arizona state court involving the settlement of another intensely publicized case, that of Savana Redding, the 13-year-old Arizona middle schooler whose strip-search by school authorities was ruled unlawful by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009.

In that case, a legal blogger sought access to the settlement agreement that ultimately resolved the lawsuit between the Redding family and the Safford Unified School District after the favorable Supreme Court ruling. The school district claimed that the document was a confidential “education record” under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”). It also raised the Hadley argument that a payment from the school system’s insurance policy is not a matter of public record.

Judge D. Corey Sanders was unpersuaded by either rationale and ordered disclosure of the agreement, which showed that the Redding family received $250,000 to settle their Fourth Amendment lawsuit.

These rulings are especially significant because the U.S. Department of Education has used “settlement agreements” as an example of the kinds of documents that it considers to be covered by FERPA confidentiality. This has never made much sense, and it is increasingly clear that it is not the law. Rather, courts will apply FERPA narrowly to shield only those types of truly “educational” documents that likely are not public record to begin with, and in which the public has little interest in disclosure.

How much a city, county or school district is paying to settle cases is a matter of public concern for a number of reasons. An agency that repeatedly pays out six-figure settlements may be doing things its attorneys are incapable of defending in court — things the public might want to consider at election time. Also, because agencies are so secretive about ongoing court cases — a school board lawfully can kick the public out of its board meetings to discuss litigation strategy with legal counsel — the settlement may be the only time that the public finds out what is alleged to have happened. And that can bring forward claims by similarly injured people who spot a pattern of misbehavior.