CHEYENNE – The Wyoming Tribune Eagle has joined with several other media companies and the Wyoming Liberty Group to sue Laramie County School District 1 over its refusal to hand over documents related to incidents of harassment at Cheyenne’s McCormick Junior High.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Laramie County District Court. It seeks the results of the district’s internal investigation into homophobic and racist flyers found at McCormick in March, the school administration’s response and other incidents of harassment.
The Wyoming Tribune Eagle was joined in its suit against LCSD1 by the Associated Press; Gray Television, which owns KGWN-TV; Townsquare Media, which owns radio station KGAB; and the Wyoming Liberty Group, which has been an advocate for government transparency and helped write the state’s new public records law, which goes into effect July 1.
Rory Palm, regional president of APG Media of the Rockies, the WTE’s parent company, said the school district needs to rebuild the trust it has lost with the public due to its handling of this incident and be transparent about what it found.
“The first step to building that trust begins with the release of the school district’s report on bullying,” Palm said. “The community of Cheyenne has the right to know the details of the report, as well as the school district’s plan for eliminating bullying from our schools.”
Cassie Craven, an attorney with the Wyoming Liberty Group, said they entered into the lawsuit because of the clear need for openness in government to protect the liberty of the citizens of Wyoming.
“This case is important from the standpoint of liberty. Those in public schooling should follow the guidance of the Supreme Court and be ever mindful that theirs is public’s business, and the public has a right to know how its servants are conducting its business,” Craven said. “Furthermore, the press are the eyes and ears of the people. A denial denies us all this fundamental liberty.”
LCSD1 Superintendent Boyd Brown said in an interview after the suit was filed that he couldn’t comment specifically on the litigation, but that the district would resolve any disputes over the records request in the court system.
“I think the Laramie County School District has responded to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle regarding its records request according to the law,” Brown said.
LCSD1 rejected a public records request made by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle on May 16, citing student privacy protections included in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The district also rejected a request for the employment status of the former McCormick principal, Jeff Conine, who left the school on April 26. The district has refused to say whether Conine was fired, reassigned or resigned from his position.
On May 24, LCSD1 also rejected a secondary public records request from the WTE for the executive summary of the internal investigation that was prepared for the LCSD1 Board of Trustees. The district did produce redacted emails and text messages related to communications on the purpose and scope of the investigation into bullying and harassment at McCormick.
The plaintiffs’ case
Bruce Moats, a local media law attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the crux of the case is about getting information to the public that they deserve and need to know regarding what happened at McCormick and how the district reacted.
“The law is to be interpreted liberally, and that is because the public ought to have information unless there’s a darn good reason not to,” Moats said. “We believe that basically the district has taken instead a narrow interpretation of the law. We believe there are ways to provide the information while protecting any legitimate privacy rights.”
In its rejection of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s request for a copy of the investigation findings, LCSD1’s letter said the “‘final report compiled on the investigation of bullying and harassment’ was drafted at the direction of and with input from legal counsel in anticipation of litigation and is therefore privileged attorney work product, not subject to disclosure.”
Moats said the use of attorney-client privilege by public entities as a reason for rejecting records requests has become a common theme in other cases. Some governmental bodies have included their attorneys on an email exchange to claim it is protected by that confidentiality.
“Simply the fact that an attorney is involved in the conversation or involved in some way doesn’t necessarily mean that attorney-client privilege applies,” Moats said.
The district’s rejection of a request for Conine’s current employment status based on the exemptions allowed in personnel files was a liberal interpretation, Moats said. The exemption is meant to protect information such as Social Security numbers, children’s names and other personal information the public doesn’t have a right to know.
“Just calling something a personnel matter is not sufficient to meet the exception, and courts have been careful to say just because something has been placed in a personnel file, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s covered by the exception,” Moats said. “It has to be the kind of thing that people would normally want to keep confidential.
“For it to be really included under the personnel file exemption, it has to be an unwarranted invasion of privacy.”
Moats said the judge who will hear this case can either decide to wait for LCSD1 to file its reasons behind the rejections for the records, or it could set a show cause hearing for LCSD1 to present its case.
“We have to wait and see how the court wants to handle that,” Moats said.
Background of the case
On March 27, homophobic and racist flyers were handed out and put up in the hallway by McCormick students, targeting members of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. The flyers read, “it’s great to be straight it’s not OK to be gay,” “black lives only matter because if it weren’t for them who would pick our cotton,” and “Join the KKK,” with “the confederate kid club” in parentheses beneath it.
This prompted the investigation by LCSD1 Title IX coordinator John Balow into whether a culture or pattern of bullying and harassment exists at the school, and if administrators failed to follow policy. The investigation officially began April 8, and the district announced on May 3 it had found “some” instances of bullying, harassment and confrontation among students at McCormick over time.
This included minority and LGBTQ students, as well as students with disabilities.
The statement released at the time noted McCormick staff members did not always follow district policy regarding reports of bullying, which states the building’s principal must launch an investigation into every report made.
On May 6, LCSD1 presented an action plan that focused on multiple steps and includes deadlines for new initiatives to start.
When it comes to actions centered at McCormick, district officials said they would continue additional counseling at the school implemented after March 27. They also said they would work with the Community Relations Service in the U.S. Department of Justice to implement a program aimed at diffusing issues of harassment and bullying at the school.
Along with the McCormick-centered efforts, district officials said they will increase training for staff and administrators on the process for reporting and investigating harassment, bullying, sexual harassment and other incidents. They also plan to examine and potentially overhaul the district’s process for reporting and investigating complaints, and reach out to parents and students in an educational effort to ensure the community understands how to report incidents.
The district also plans to conduct at least two community meetings on the plan and on the issues of harassment and bullying. The first took place May 23 and was facilitated by the Department of Justice. The second meeting is a symposium set for Saturday through June 29 and will be led by students in a partnership with F.E. Warren Air Force Base.
By Ramsey Scott
Wyoming Tribune Eagle Via Wyoming News Exchange