Case For Exempting Teacher Records From Open Records Doesn't Pass The Smell Test

In an earlier post I wrote about SB2153 which, if passed, would close off records pertaining to teachers accused of crimes.

North Dakota has had some high-profile criminal cases involving teachers in the last year. Susan Duursma, for instance, who was a teacher in Bismarck who had sex with one of her students. West Fargo teacher Aaron Knodel – a “teacher of the year” award winner – was arrested on similar charges and will face trial in March. This legislation is pretty transparently a response to records requests inspired by those news stories.

But officials claim that wasn’t the motivation. Instead, they say they want to protect the accused:

“We’re concerned about rumor, innuendo, that kind of thing,” said Jon Martinson, executive director of the North Dakota School Boards Association, which lobbied for the bill. “We’re trying to protect the reputation of people involved until the complaint has been resolved.”

The bill’s sponsors denied that it was in any way a reaction to the criminal charges against Aaron Knodel, a West Fargo teacher who was named North Dakota’s teacher of the year in 2014. Knodel faces five felony counts of corruption of a minor and is scheduled for a March trial.

Martinson said he could not point to a specific incident that spurred the bill, but that he received calls from more than one school district asking for the public record exemption.

“Without this legislation, it puts school district employees in a really difficult situation because it is an open record, yet the issue is an ongoing investigation,” he said.

That would be an easier argument to buy if school districts weren’t in the habit of firing the accused before they get their day in court. That’s what happened in Duursma’s case (an action I didn’t agree with at the time). If school districts are really oh-so-concerned about protecting their employees, why do they so often act against those employees before guilt is established in court?

Jack McDonald, legal counsel for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, has the right of the issue pointing out that it’s not as if these cases are a big secret. The criminal process surrounding them is already very public, as it should be:

Jack McDonald, an attorney for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, which includes The Forum and opposes the bill, noted that criminal charges against any person are filed publicly in district court, often in great detail. Protecting the privacy of a school employee facing criminal charges, McDonald said, would be a lost cause.

“So, what privacy are we talking about?” McDonald said. “All the details of whatever complaint it is are already in the public record.”

The bill would protect the school district from revealing documents, which could lead to scrutiny, for as long as a criminal case drags on, which could take months or years, McDonald said.

“It would be a big, big dent in the open records law if this was enacted,” he said.

Indeed.

This law would do less to protect the rights of the accused than it would to protect school districts from scrutiny and accountability.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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