April 4, 2014

School District Responses Show Varied Interpretations Of Iowa Open Records Law

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The Iowa City Community School District office is shown April 4. The district was the only one to assess a fee.

Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

The Iowa City Community School District office is shown April 4. The district was the only one to assess a fee.

Parents, or any member of the public for that matter, who ask some of Iowa’s largest school districts how their district deals with emergency lockdowns for their children’s safety would have difficulty obtaining the district’s policy.

Only nine of Iowa’s 30 largest school districts were willing to provide immediately the written policies for how they handle a school lockdown, an IowaWatch audit this past month revealed.

One district – Iowa City – originally assessed a fee but eventually provided the policy, with parts redacted, after several weeks of prodding by IowaWatch. Another, Lewis Central in Council Bluffs, provided an outline of its policy but not the actual policy.

Still another, the Urbandale school district, did not respond at all to the public information request as required by Iowa’s state law.

The requests, filed under Iowa’s Open Records Law, sought information about the lockdown policies for emergency situations at the state’s largest school districts.

As responses came in, they showed inconsistencies in how the open records law is interpreted. Where matters of security are concerned, what is and is not considered public record often is left to the discretion of the government body in charge of the information.

IowaWatch’s records request was not a traditional open records audit, which newspapers occasionally conduct to systematically test responses to record requests.

Mark Twain Elementary School in Iowa City, is shown on April 4. The school was placed on lockdown Feb. 12.

Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

Mark Twain Elementary School in Iowa City is shown on April 4. The school was placed on lockdown Feb. 12.

READ THE STORY
Several Iowa School Districts Switching to Controversial Emergency Response Plan

The request was spurred by a Feb. 12 lockdown at Twain Elementary School in Iowa City. The school was locked down shortly before the end of the school day, with buses and parents waiting outside to pick students up. An auto-calling system was used to inform parents of the lockdown and update them as the situation changed.

Lockdown policies contain important information for parents about how schools plan to keep children safe as well as how parents will be informed about emergencies.

In many cases, lockdown policies have become more flexible to accommodate different situations. The policies also have moved away from the original definition of a lockdown, which involved clearing common areas – like hallways or a cafeteria – and taking shelter in locked rooms. Now, many plans stress evacuation. IowaWatch is preparing a more detailed story about the policies.

The responses to the security information request highlighted exceptions built into the open records law, which can be open to interpretation, creating roadblocks for journalists and other members of the general public who request information, said Kathleen Richardson, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

“There is a provision in the public records law that gives record custodians discretion to release information that they think is in the public’s interest. But it’s never really clearly spelled out under what circumstances custodians can exercise that discretion, so the situation does highlight that a lot of responses to requests depends on that discretion,” she said.

SchoolDistrictRepliesSidebar

E-mails seeking the lockdown information were sent Feb. 21.

The Waterloo, Burlington and Western Dubuque school districts sent their policies via e-mail the same day the initial open information request was sent. Sioux City, Council Bluffs, Marshalltown, Ames, Mason City and Indianola school districts also sent policy documents.

The nine schools declining to provide their policies cited a section of Iowa Code, 22.7, which addresses when a public record may be kept confidential. The section exempts information about security procedures or emergency preparedness information if it reasonably could be expected to jeopardize students or staff.

Yet, six school districts – Ankeny, West Des Moines, Waukee, Johnston, Cedar Falls and Ottumwa – responded to the open records request with directions to the safety and emergency response policies on their websites and district handbooks. All six of the provided links worked.

Three school districts refused to provide the information, saying the procedures are confidential or secure. They did not cite Iowa Code, as required by the open records law.

FUZZY REGULATIONS FOR FEES

The Iowa City school district was the only district that charged a fee to process the request fully. The fee was estimated at $25 to $50 for the documents.

Asked why, Chace Ramey, chief community affairs officer for the district, replied in an email: “While I cannot comment on or speak to the public records policies of other school districts, I am happy to provide information on Iowa City’s practice.”

Ramey wrote that the fee and process the district follow “ensures proper internal review of requested information and that the District does not inadvertently release confidential information.”

According to the district’s policy listed on the website, the fee covers an initial retrieval, review, and supervision fee of $25 per hour, rounded to the nearest one quarter of an hour. E-mail archive searches also include an initial $25 fee, plus an additional $25 per hour.

When IowaWatch requested to inspect the documents in person, in order to reduce staff time and waive the fee, officials said they could not guarantee the fee would be eliminated. Under Iowa Code 22.2, individuals have a right to examine a public record without charge; however Iowa Code 22.3 allows a reasonable fee for the actual cost of providing the record, which cannot include charges for ordinary expenses or costs.

The Iowa City Community School District office is shown April 4. Iowa City was the only district to assess a fee.

Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

The Iowa City Community School District office is shown April 4. The district was the only one to charge a fee, although it was ultimately waived.

“You are more than welcome to review the documents at the District office which could reduce the fee; however, I cannot guarantee that it would eliminate the need to charge a fee for completing your public records request,” Ramey said in his email to IowaWatch.

IowaWatch visited the Iowa City district offices on March 25 to review the available policy information. No fee was charged.

The policy information provided for IowaWatch consisted of three single-paragraph administrative guidelines. The first guideline stated that the school district would maintain a warning system designed to inform students and employees of an emergency, but gave no details about the warning system. The second and third documents were also short on details, stating that the superintendent or the superintendent’s designee had the authority to close schools in case of emergency.

District officials cited the security procedures exemption as the reason details were cut out.

Both Ramey and the district’s health and student services director, Susie Poulton, met with IowaWatch for an hour while these documents were examined to answer questions. Ramey said district officials are reluctant to provide this information readily because of past accusations of being too free with information.

The Iowa City school district has come under fire in the past for its handling of public records requests, but in a highly public instance was accused of being too restrictive, not too free. In 2012, the district settled a public records lawsuit, paying nearly $5,000 in court fees, after a judge ruled it had illegally withheld records regarding a geothermal project at City High.

KEEPING KIDS SAFE

After further emails or phone calls, some schools that initially denied the request were willing to provide general information, but wouldn’t release specifics.

Kathleen Richardson, assistant professor at the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Source: Drake School of Journalism website.

Kathleen Richardson

Richardson said the goal behind the districts’ reticence is to keep kids safe in schools.

“One of the unintended consequences of not releasing this information is a lack of transparency, and a lack of the ability for journalists to keep government accountable,” she said.

Richardson said the section exempting emergency preparedness and security procedures from public record was enacted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to prevent any security or emergency response information from getting out that could aid terrorists.

Laurel Day, the Cedar Rapids Community School District director of security, said the district constantly is updating the crisis plan for the district’s 31 school buildings. The district cited the exemption and didn’t release specific information about its plans.

“We are always trying to stay one step ahead of the bad guy,” Day said. “We’re continuously updating our crisis plan, it’s assessed and re-evaluated as national things happen to keep our kids safe.”

David Wilkerson, superintendent of the Waukee school district, also cited the exception.

Dave Wilkerson

Dave Wilkerson

“The information requested, if made public, would in many ways render those plans and procedures useless,” Wilkerson said.

Although the Sioux City Community School District was among the schools that originally cited the Iowa Code exception, it sent lockdown policy documents, with specific information blacked out, 10 days after the initial request.

Alison Benson, the district’s communications director, said the redactions were made to protect information relating to the district’s security and response plans and procedures.

“The redacted information could reasonably be expected to jeopardize district students, employees, visitors, or property,” Benson said in an e-mail containing the procedural documents.

The Des Moines and Linn-Mar school districts, which originally denied the request citing Iowa Code exception, included general information via e-mail after additional prompting.

The Pleasant Valley school district, like Cedar Rapids’, also cited the exemption. However, representatives in both districts were willing to speak over the phone about general details regarding their district’s lockdown policies or emergency response situations.

Two school districts – Fort Dodge and Clinton – responded that they do not have districtwide lockdown policies.


Versions of this IowaWatch story were published in The Des Moines Register and Mason City Globe Gazette.

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