An article about a Flagler Schools investigation into an incident in which at least one student was bitten by a rat at Buddy Taylor Middle School’s agriscience farm has led to two School Board members questioning what should be released through public records requests.
A teacher was reprimanded because of the Sept. 6 incident and the school’s agriculture program was shut down temporarily. The article, published on the FlaglerLive news site (view it HERE), included student statements that were in the investigator’s report.
The news site obtained the report through a public records request. While the students’ names were redacted from the report, board member Will Furry said the students’ statements should never have been released.
Furry brought up the matter during old business at the School Board’s Nov. 7 workshop. Only three board members attended the workshop with Sally Hunt and Colleen Conklin absent.
“This article upset a lot of parents,” Furry said. “They’re very upset handwritten statements by students were released along with the investigation.”
Board Attorney Kristy Gavin said the only witnesses to the incident were students and the statements were part of the report, word for word, with grammatical errors.
“The information actually caused emotional harm to one of the students,” Furry said.
He said though the names were redacted, there were identifiers within the statements and the student who was harassed at the time by other students had to endure “a whole ‘nother round of this.”
Gavin said there are very limited exceptions to public records requests in Florida. Violation of the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA) did not apply in this case, she said, because the statements are not part of a student’s record. She said everything relating to the investigation, other than the teacher’s statement, was based on information from students.
Board member Christy Chong asked, “Why should comments from students end up in a news article?”
Furry, who, along with Chong and Hunt, has been calling for the termination of Gavin’s contract, told Gavin, “If I was in your role, I would be in my rights to redact it, right?”
Gavin said she has to comply with Florida statutes.
“This isn’t my interpretation. This is how other school districts would go forward,” she said.
“I cannot believe that there is not a state statute we could have applied,” Furry said. “I’m not going to accept that state statute allowed this to happen. That could be a defense. But I believe we could have redacted those statements.”
Bob Ouellete, the district’s chief Human Resources officer who was previously the district’s coordinator of professional standards, said the district has a procedure manual for internal investigations. Parents are contacted and asked if the investigator can talk to their child. Parents can deny permission or, if they give consent, they can be present or listen by phone, Ouellette said. But once the student makes a statement it becomes public record.
“Unfortunately, everything we do is public record,” he said.
Furry read a letter sent to him by the student’s mother saying her son enjoyed the class and the teacher and the incident put him in a rough spot with his friends and caused him great anguish.
“This is the kind of stuff that can drive a child to suicide,” Chong said.
“We do have discretion to redact it,” Furry said. “If we’re wrong they’ll challenge it. We’re going to protect the kids. What happened to this boy cannot happen again.”
Superintendent LaShakia Moore asked Furry if his question to district staff is, Could the statements be redacted and only a summary of finding be provided?
Furry said the district should prepare a form that parents would sign telling them that their child's statements would be subject to public record.