In my FOIA experience, agencies have tried all kinds of things to block or delay the release of information, but I got to see a new one when dealing with a small school district in South Carolina.
Last April, a Lake City teacher was arrested for criminal sexual conduct with a minor. It was in and out of the news for a little bit.
During a lull in the coverage I ran into a family member of the teacher who said the district knew what was going on for longer than they acknowledged, and that I should be able to find at least one email about her “getting a talking to,” information that proved the district knew of the misconduct before she was officially reprimanded.
As soon as I got back to the office, I wrote up a FOIA letter to the district (Florence School District 3) for all emails to and from the school’s principals concerning the teacher in the last two years.
I’d rather know someone at an organization who doesn’t mind giving me information than send a FOIA letter any day. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that option this time. I think in a lot of organizations, especially smaller towns like Florence, S.C., FOIA is seen one of three ways:
First, “The Knee Jerk.” The organization automatically assumes you’re looking for some dirt on them to expose (which I may or may not be looking for). Instead of being helpful, they’re defensive, and make things are hard as possible. Usually it’s an organization/agency/office who isn’t familiar with their own procedures to replying to FOIAs -if they have any procedures in the first place.
If it’s not the knee jerk, it’s “The Overzealous” — an outfit who knows what FOIA is and requires use of it for request of ANYTHING they do (ex. South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the Florence Police Department). They have no day-to-day way to request records. If you want anything, no matter how big, small or mundane, they want you to write up a FOIA letter. “We just want to keep a record of everything we do,” is usually their explanation.
The third is a mixture of both. The organization is familiar with FOIA. They probably have something to hide. They want to make it as hard as possible for you to get the information. I ran head on into one of these.
I’d put FSD3 in the third category.
Beth Wright, the Florence School District 3 Superintendent, became my FOIA nemesis after responding to my letter saying she would contact the teacher to give her a chance to get a court order blocking the district from releasing the information.
If what the family member said was true, that would show the district knew about inappropriate conduct long before they took action, so the district had an interest in the information also.
When I talked to Wright on the phone, she said they weren’t trying to block the release of information, but were concerned releasing the information could violate the personal privacy section of South Carolina’s FOIA law.
The part she was talking about says:
(2) Information of a personal nature where the public disclosure thereof would constitute unreasonable invasion of personal privacy.Information of a personal nature shall include, but not be limited to, information as to gross receipts contained in applications for business licenses and information relating to public records which include the name, address, and telephone number or other such information of an individual or individuals who are handicapped or disabled when the information is requested for person-to-person commercial solicitation of handicapped persons solely by virtue of their handicap.
This provision must not be interpreted to restrict access by the public and press to information contained in public records.
If the emails contained any of that, which I doubt they did, I’m sure that information could be redacted easily.
My opinion is that legally they should have released the information instead of contacting the teacher and waiting for her response. Nothing in the statute that says they have to inform the person the request is about that information is being requested. Every FOIA is a new adventure.
Still haven’t heard anything back yet from the lawyer, the teacher involved or the courts. As of last contact with the lawyer last fall, the FOIA was still open.