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 CAB Secrecy Runs Rampant as Tort Claim is Censored

October 10, 2007 - The Banner has learned additional details about a former Knightstown Intermediate School student's legal claims against the school and the Charles A. Beard Memorial School Corporation, and learned more about the lengths to which the school corporation has gone to conceal information about the matter.

On September 25, in response to a public a record request, CAB provided The Banner with a copy of a Notice of Tort Claim - a document that generally precedes the filing of litigation against public entities in Indiana - it had received in late June. The record was heavily censored, with substantial portions blacked out, and CAB claimed the redactions were required by a federal law designed to protect the privacy of student educational records.

Uncensored portions of the record CAB gave The Banner revealed that Indianapolis attorney William Ivers claimed his client, a female student who had attended KIS, had been falsely accused of something and defamed by school personnel last February. According to language CAB did not black out, the defamatory statements were allegedly allowed to circulate throughout the school and were repeated by others. CAB did not censor the inside address information showing Ivers had also sent copies of the notice to the state attorney general and a division of the Indiana Department of Insurance. In response to a request The Banner made by phone the same day it got the censored record from CAB, the DOI e-mailed the newspaper an uncensored copy of the Notice of Tort Claim in less than 24 hours.

As a result of the DOI's compliance with the state's public records laws, The Banner now knows that CAB blacked out the following information on the copy it provided:

*Ivers claims his client was falsely accused by two KIS teachers and others of "overdosing on illegal drugs" last February;

*Ivers says the student has suffered ridicule and been humiliated, and continues to suffer emotional damages as a result of the alleged defamation; and

*Ivers says the student's claims are based on CAB's recklessness, gross negligence and negligence, and that she has suffered more than $500,000 in damages.

While some of the information CAB blacked out on the copy it gave The Banner clearly would have identified the student, other censored portions simply described, in general terms, the nature of her claim. One attorney who deals regularly with public records issues believes CAB's redactions to the notice went too far and violated the state's Access to Public Records Act.

"(The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) only says that you delete information that would identify the student," Steve Key, general legal counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, told The Banner. "That would be the name of the student and her mom. But describing what the school or school corporation have allegedly done, or who the witnesses are, things along those lines, those wouldn't be subject to redaction in my mind.

"On the face of it, I don't think that the things that are being claimed would be something that would identify the student, as far as this document," Key continued. "The idea behind the Notice of Tort Claim is to inform the school - and through public records the public - that somebody has made an allegation or a claim for money from the school. Why would you make that secret?

"I think they've gone way beyond that as far as what they've redacted, to not only the identity of the student, but to the cause of action, the parties involved in the action - all of those things are included and I don't think they should have been redacted."

Key also told The Banner that the federal law CAB cited in justification of censoring the Notice of Tort Claim, FERPA, might not even apply.

"To my mind, it's not an educational record - it's a legal claim," Key said. "If they file in court, the lawsuit's going to have her name and the mom's name on it, and that will certainly be a matter of public record. I don't see this as being any different."

According to Jena Schmidt, CAB's public access officer and administrative assistant to the superintendent, the redactions to the Notice of Tort claim were made by CAB's attorney, Mike Wallman. The Banner attempted to contact Wallman for this story, but he had not returned the newspaper's phone call as of Tuesday evening.

 

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