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PAC Issues Two Decisions in Favor of School District Decisions to Withhold Student Records and Proprietary Information

Education K-12 Education

Recently, the Public Access Counselor (PAC) issued two non-binding opinions concerning the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), both upholding school district decisions to exert exemptions and withhold key documents under the FOIA.

In the first decision, the PAC determined that the school district properly denied a request for “all records from current students who have been granted permissive transfers to remain in their current school” as unduly burdensome because it would require the district to redact over 1,000 pages of student records. Further, the PAC upheld the school district’s decision to withhold one record pursuant to Section 7.5(r) of the FOIA, which exempts information prohibited from disclosure under the Illinois School Student Records Act. The PAC found that the record at issue contained highly specific information concerning student transfer requests, by which students could be individually identified. Importantly, the PAC reasoned that the school district did not improperly withhold the record in its entirety because the record could not be redacted in a way that maintained student confidentiality, while retaining the meaning of the record. Accordingly, the PAC determined that the school district was not required to produce the record in a redacted state and therefore, properly withheld the record in its entirety.

The second decision concerned a FOIA request for a copy of a sexual harassment presentation that our law firm presented during the school district’s inservice training. In response, the school district argued that the training materials reflected the law firm’s research and opinions with respect to preventing sexual harassment and compliance with applicable laws. Therefore, the district argued that release of such information could be exploited by competitors of the law firm. The PAC found that the school district properly withheld the sexual harassment training materials as proprietary information that is exempt from disclosure under Section 7(1)(g) of the FOIA.  Section 7(1)(g) exempts from disclosure trade secrets and commercial or financial information that are proprietary, privileged, or confidential, and the disclosure of which would cause competitive harm. Here, the PAC affirmed that the school district met its burden of establishing that release of the requested training materials would cause competitive harm and were exempt from disclosure.

If you have any questions regarding these decisions or any FOIA matters, please contact one of the authors of this alert or any Franczek attorney.