Colorado school district destroys emails about student 'to protect against' records requests

COLORADO — A Colorado school district employee instructed staff to destroy public records “to protect against” open-records requests from a special-education student’s parents, according to emails obtained by the boy’s father.

“Please delete this email when done. . .” begins a December 2010 email sent by Sarah Belleau, Poudre School District’s integrated services director, to a colleague.

“Please ask all involved staff to delete AND destroy any e-mail or paper records related to this family,” Belleau continues. “When they delete the e-mail, they need to then ‘empty the trash’ Please have them do this immediately. All other records with the exception of the latest plan should destroyed – shred. The reason is to protect against an Open Records Request. Thank you for doing this and for verbally communicating this with staff. I do not want this put in writing.”

Ephraim Starr, who is referenced by name in the email thread, moved from California to Fort Collins, Colo., in 2010 with his wife, Donna, and their son, Isaac, who has autism. Belleau’s email was sent before Isaac had started school at Bacon Elementary in January 2011.

The Starrs filed a public-records request (first through email, then a formal letter) in March of 2011 for their son’s records after they had noticed regressions in Isaac’s behavior, Starr said. They also requested communications between staffers.

When Isaac started school, the district cut “critical services” — extended school-day instruction, for example — from the Individualized Education Plan Isaac had in California, Starr said. School officials insisted everything was going well, he said.

“They … were telling us how great things were going,” Starr said. “What we were observing at home was very different from what they were saying was happening at school.”

Ephraim Starr was unsatisfied with the records initially provided to them a few days after the request, so he prodded further. More than a month later, he was offered more records to review, according to court documents. This only happened after the school purchased software to retrieve deleted emails and later hired a data-retrieval firm, a search that ended up costing the district approximately $47,000, according to the court judgment.

The records revealed that officials were perpetuating a campaign to “delete and destroy” records pertaining to his family, Starr said.

“Please creatively think of something we may all be able to use as a ‘code’ word – haha!!” wrote Joe Horky, principal of Bacon Elementary, in an email March 23, 2011, to an employee, two days after the Starrs’ formal request.

In that email, Horky refers to no one by name but mentions that “student initials may not be the only/best answer to our email issue.” (He does, however, use Isaac Starr’s initials and mentions “a records request made by parents.”)

Finally, Horky instructs the recipient of the email to delete all email correspondence.

“Delete your message!” Horky writes. “Delete your deleted! Delete your sent!”

The school district eventually, on May 20, provided the Starrs with 44 pages of hard-copy emails that a staffer had printed out and kept in a folder after receiving instruction from Belleau to delete them. These documents included the Dec. 9 email.

The Starr family filed a lawsuit in 2011 over the records issue, alleging that the district had withheld public records to deliberately conceal them.

While the court found “Belleau’s demeanor on the witness stand was evasive, vague and, with respect to this testimony, not credible,” the judgment said that, ultimately, her instructions to delete records in the Dec. 9 email did not violate the Colorado Open Records Act because she had no way of anticipating the Starrs’ eventual public-records request.

The court did find that Principal Horky’s email was “relevant to this case,” and that the district did not suitably justify its withholding of some records and was obligated to produce an index defining so-called “privileged” documents, which eventually led to more document disclosures, Starr said.

Neither Belleau nor Horky could be reached for comment.

Steve Zansberg, the attorney who represented the Starr family and the president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said he has never seen anything like this, “before or since.”

“I have never seen an email that is such a deliberate and unequivocal expression of an intent to deny a records requester the ability to inspect public records,” Zansberg said.

Belleau’s Dec. 9 email, Zansberg said, is the “smoking gun.”

“I think her email speaks for itself,” Zansberg said of Belleau, who is still an employee of the school district. “The thing that amazed me about this case, more so than the underlying action, was that the school district supported it, suggesting that what she had done was not improper or unlawful. It amazes me to this day.”

Today, the Starrs and the Poudre School District are embroiled in a separate legal conflict. The district sued the Starr family for a “consent override,” Starr said, to perform tests on Isaac. The family agreed to some of the tests, but Starr said the school district won’t reveal details about many of the evaluations.

In order to consent, parents need to understand what tests their son will undergo, he said.

That was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Starr said, and prompted the family to come forward with their story about the records lawsuit, which was first written about by Denver-area 7News.

“We were really trying to not be public about this and keep our son’s name out of the press,” Starr said. “We feel like it’s more important people know this story.”

By Rex Santus, SPLC staff writer. Contact Santus by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.