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PAC Finds FOIA Violation for Police Department’s Failure to Produce Records of Teacher Charged with Assaulting Student

Education K-12 Education

Recently, the Public Access Counselor (PAC) issued a new binding opinion concerning the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In the opinion, the PAC concluded that a police department violated the FOIA by withholding records concerning a public school teacher who was arrested and charged with battery, sexual assault, and other criminal offenses against a minor student pursuant to Section 7(1)(c) of the FOIA.

At issue was a FOIA request for documents concerning a former public school teacher charged with criminal sexual assault, battery, and other criminal charges involving a student. The police department denied the request in its entirety pursuant to Section 7(1)(c) of the FOIA, claiming the only responsive records were exempt from release because disclosure of the victim’s age and the sensitive details regarding the nature of the offense would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and that the subject’s right to privacy outweighed any legitimate public interest in obtaining the information. Following the denial, the requester filed a request for review with the PAC, claiming that the police department failed to show how release of these records, with appropriate redaction of identifying information, would disclose the identity of the victim.

The PAC reviewed the police department’s assertion of the Section 7(1)(c) exemption to determine whether disclosure of the records would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy by considering the interests of all parties involved, as well as the public’s interest in disclosure. The PAC determined the requester’s interests were legitimate and substantial because, in their role as a news reporter, they sought information regarding the nature of a teacher’s criminal record related to misconduct with students. The PAC acknowledged that newsgathering aligns with the public interest of disclosure and there is a legitimate public interest in the disclosure of police records concerning arrests and criminal charges against public school teachers for offenses against students. Further, the PAC found a significant and legitimate public interest in monitoring law enforcement to ensure it is acting in the public’s interest. Continuing its analysis, the PAC determined that the degree of personal invasion to the victim was minimal and that any victim-identifying information or explicit details of interactions could be redacted to protect the victim’s privacy.

Ultimately, the PAC determined that the police department improperly denied the FOIA request.

This decision provides guidance for school districts that deal with similar sensitive records requests involving employees and students. If redactions will protect the identity of a student, records that describe the misconduct of employees in many instances may garner significant enough public interest to require release. If you have any questions regarding this decision or any FOIA matters, please contact one of the authors of this alert or any Franczek attorney.