Providing Public Records Requests from Your School Databases

Providing Public Records Requests from Your School Databases

A public records request was filed with Columbus City Schools (CCS) on December 29, 2020, seeking information about teacher absences and its substitute coverage. The request specifically asked for information for the school years ending in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

On January 22, 2021, a follow-up email was sent stating the records had not yet been received and on February 8, 2021, a complaint was filed alleging the denial of access to the requested public records. The school district filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the requested records do not exist, and the case went into mediation. Let’s break it down.

What Constitutes a Record?

When requesting public records, the requestor must first show that the items sought meet the statutory definition of “records,” and that the records were kept by CCS. “Records” are defined as documents, items within them, and reports or files aggregated from separate records.

CCS does not dispute that the requested data is in its computers Substitute Employment Management System (SEMS). Rather, they argue that the requested data report does not exist because SEMS is not designed to create reports with the exact information requested. To satisfy the request, the database information would have to be manually manipulated.

The Database Rule

A public office is only required to produce existing records and has no obligation to create new records, including new compilations of dispersed data. In this case, the request is “new” in the sense that CCS has not used the database software to compile this specific kind of information in the past. However, if an electronic database used by a public office has existing programming that can produce the output sought in a public records request, then that output already “exists” for the purposes of the Public Records Act.

Does the Requested Data Exist?

CCS asserts that producing the report in the matter requested would require SEMS to create datasets that would then need to be manually manipulated, i.e., create a new record. However, it is not a valid excuse to deny a requestor the use of the database functionality to “create” a record. CCS attests that information must first be extracted from the database to an Excel spreadsheet and then manipulated with the Excel function of “pivot tables,” a data manipulation option not available in SEMS. Although the district admitted it could manipulate the data with what appears to be a minimal additional effort, they claim that the requested monthly statistics are technically not a record the database was already programmed to produce.

The Verdict

Ultimately the requestor failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the output can be produced, nor could they show that CCS had a duty to produce it, and the request was denied.

Further, CCS asserted that the initial request was “overly broad” by not identifying an existing compilation of records. However, CCS failed to respond in a timely manner which denied the requestor the opportunity to properly revise the request and avoid litigation.

What this Means for Your District

First and foremost, regardless of whether you intend to honor the request, you’ll need to respond in a timely manner, which is subjective to the pertinent facts and circumstances of the request. Additionally, if the data program you are using can produce a document to satisfy a request, you must do so. If ever there is a question about what records may be released and the timeliness the information should be given, a member of the Ennis Britton legal team would be happy to guide you.

U.S. Supreme Court: Title VII Prohibits Termination Based on Sexual Orientation

On June 15, 2020, in the consolidated matters of Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, Altitude Express v. Zarda, and R.G.& G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, et al, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that an employer who fires an individual employee merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Bostock began participating in a gay recreational softball league. Shortly thereafter, Bostock received criticism for his participation in the league and for his sexual orientation and identity generally. Shortly afterward, Clayton County terminated his employment. In Altitude Express, Zarda was fired days after mentioning he was gay. In Harris, an employee was fired after the employee informed the employer that the employee planned to live and work full time as a woman. The U.S. Supreme Court held that Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against any individual “because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Looking to the ordinary public meaning of each word and phrase comprising that provision, the Court interpreted it to mean that an employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based, at least in part, on sex. Discrimination on the basis of homosexuality or transgender status requires an employer to intentionally treat employees differently because of their sex—the very practice Title VII prohibits in all manifestations. While it was argued that Title VII was never intended to be read with such a broad brushstroke, the Court found that the use of the word sex was unambiguous and supported its holding. 

Records of Deceased Student and Mass Shooter Case Decided

Recently, in State ex. rel CNN, Inc. v. Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local School Dist., 2019-Ohio-4187, the Second Appellate District ruled that the death of a student does not remove the legal protections of the confidentiality of student records.

In August 2019, an adult gunman killed nine people and injured twenty-seven others in a mass shooting in Dayton. Following the incident, several media outlets requested public records of the gunman’s educational records, including disciplinary records, from the School District from which he graduated.

The district released directory information concerning the student but declined to release any other records. The media outlets sued, filing a mandamus action seeking the release of the records. Ohio Revised Code (R.C.) Section 149.43 requires a public agency to release public records upon request, unless an exception applies. That section provides that records are not “public records” subject to release if a state or federal law prohibits the release of them.
The district argued that the Ohio Student Privacy Act limits access to records concerning students, specifically, that “[n]o person shall release, or permit access to personally identifiable information other than directory information concerning any student attending a public school … without the written consent of each such student who is eighteen years of age or older.”

The court concluded that, based on the plain language of R.C. 149.43, the district is barred from releasing the records requested, rejecting the news media’s argument that the district was compelled to release the requested records because the former student’s right to privacy expired with his death. The case has been appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Attorney General Dave Yost filed a brief to the Supreme Court of Ohio. His brief is in support of the media outlets that are suing in order to have rights to view the student’s records. Yost argued that neither Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act nor Ohio Student Privacy Acts protects the records of students who die after becoming an adult. A local TV station and other news organizations filed briefs amicus curiae in support of CNN.

Yost’s brief states that the attorney general’s office has a duty to “ensure transparency in all levels of government.” One of the duties involved is to provide training and guidance on Ohio’s Sunshine Laws. This duty, the brief reads, is being directly impacted because the Public Records Act is being violated in not allowing access to the student records

School District Transgender Policy Violates Title IX

On August 9, 2019, a federal judge in Virginia ruled in favor of a transgender student in holding that a school district’s policy violated his rights under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause. The Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board case stemmed from a school district’s policy requiring students to use restrooms and locker rooms that corresponded to their “biological genders.” The district provided alternative facilities for transgender students.

The court initially ruled that claims of discrimination on the basis of transgender status for gender-stereotyping are actionable under Title IX. The court further found that denying Grimm the ability to access the facilities corresponding with his gender identity were not only actionable but did in fact result in a violation of Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause.

The Board argued that it had not engaged in discrimination and that Grimm had not suffered any harm as a result of its policy. The court found this argument to be unconvincing. The court determined that the district’s policy subjected transgender students to discriminatory treatment by excluding them from places similarly situated students had access to. Further, Grimm did suffer emotional harm due to the fact he was unable to comfortably access restrooms at school. Grimm was further subjected to harm when the school district refused to update his school records in order to reflect his male identity. Failure to do so has negated his male identity and marked him different than other males any time he provided a copy of his transcript to another entity.

This ultimately led the court to grant a permanent injunction against the school district’s restroom and locker room policy. The injunction further awarded Gavin nominal damages and ordered the school district to change his school records to conform with his gender identity.

While the decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is not controlling on Ohio school districts, the Sixth Circuit did rule on a very similar case back in 2016. In Dodds v. United States Department of Education, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a lower district court decision and determined that an eleven-year-old transgender girl had a strong likelihood of success in her claims against the school district and should therefore be allowed to use the school restrooms conforming with her gender identity.

It is important to note the decision in Dodds relied on guidance from the United States Department of Education that has since been rescinded. The current position of the USDOE is that they will not accept any complaints alleging a transgender student was denied access to restrooms and locker rooms and will only accept complaints of harassment or bullying for failing to conform to sex-based stereotypes. Thus, in light of this new guidance, it remains unclear how an Ohio court would rule on this issue today.

What this means for your district:
The issue of providing accommodations to transgender students remains unclear and is a matter that will doubtless be subject to further litigation before any clarity is provided. Districts should proceed with caution when faced with these issues. For additional advice on handling requests for accommodations for transgender students, please contact an Ennis Britton attorney for assistance.

Post-Janus Settlement Released

In a 5-4 decision made last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the extraction of agency fees from Illinois State’s nonconsenting employees of the public-sector violates their First Amendment rights. After the decision was made, all workers who attempted to withdraw their consent to extract agency fees, were refunded the money taken under the policy. The court stated that, “States and public-sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from nonconsenting employees. … employees must choose to support the union before anything is taken from them.”

The Supreme Court decision is sparking class action lawsuits across the country. In Ohio, Smith v. AFSCME has been monumental for post-Janus rulings. The suit was filed by several employees across Ohio who are employed by local government agencies. All of the employees attempted to withdraw their union membership and their dues deduction authorization following the Janus ruling. They were each denied their First Amendment right as union officials continued to extract dues. Officials followed the “15-day window period” that only allowed for resignation of the union 15 days prior to the expiration of the collective bargaining contract. This led to the employees filing suit against AFSCME, alleging that the policy was unconstitutional.

The employees were represented by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, who also represented Mark Janus in Janus. At the end of January 2019, the case was finally settled. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, AFSCME agreed to pay back all union dues that were extracted after the employees attempted to withdraw their consent. The union will not deduct any agency fees or dues that were previously subject to the window policy. This is monumental because it is the first class action lawsuit since the Janus ruling in which union officials have reversed their policy on the window period. President of the National Right to Work Foundation, Mark Mix, said, “This first-in-the-nation victory in a class action case to enforce workers’ rights under Janus should be the first of many cases that result in union bosses dropping their illegal restrictions on workers seeking to exercise their rights secured in the Foundation’s Janus Supreme Court victory.” As of January 24th, Foundation was litigating 20 cases nationwide to enforce employee’s rights.

What this Means for Your District
In light of the ruling in Janus and the Smith settlement, districts should be mindful that any “window policy” on withdrawing union membership may present legal complications for the district if challenged. Districts should review their collective bargaining agreements and consult with their local unions regarding its position on that provision given Smith.