Update: On July 21, 2023, the board of the Denver Public Schools voted to release the recording.
A Colorado judge last week ordered the Denver Public Schools to publicly release the recording of a secret meeting in March during which school board members discussed returning armed resource officers to high schools following a local school shooting.
Judge Andrew Luxen of the Denver County District Court held that a March 23 executive session violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law, finding that the district failed to properly notice the public about the topics school officials would discuss before they met behind closed doors for five hours.
The school district appealed the court’s ruling on Monday, preventing the immediate disclosure of the recording. But the ruling is an important victory for the Colorado news outlets that sued the district in April over its refusal to turn over the recording and minutes of the unlawful closed-door meeting.
“A discussion about the public’s business, especially school safety, cannot be conducted in secret,” said Rachael Johnson, the Colorado Local Legal Initiative attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, who is representing the news media coalition alongside attorney Steven Zansberg.
The closed-door meeting at the heart of the legal dispute took place the day after a student shot and injured two administrators at Denver’s East High School. The student later took his own life. The Board of Education of the Denver Public Schools met in a closed session to discuss what it said were “specialized details of security arrangements or investigations as a result of” the shooting. As news outlets later reported, board members unanimously decided during the closed meeting to re-deploy armed police officers in every high school in the school district for the remainder of the school year, thereby formally suspending its former written district policy.
Several Colorado news organizations later submitted public records requests seeking the recording and meeting minutes of the closed session. But the school district denied each of the requests, claiming that the records “are not subject to disclosure pursuant to the Colorado Open Meetings [Law] … or the Colorado Open Records Act.”
On April 28, six news outlets — The Denver Post, Colorado Newsline, Nexstar Media Group, KUSA 9News, The Denver Gazette and Colorado Politics, and Chalkbeat Colorado — sued the district, accusing school officials of violating the two transparency laws. The lawsuit asked the court to order school officials to release the entirety of the recording because it was an unlawfully closed public meeting.
Judge Luxen agreed.
After privately listening to the recording of the school board’s closed meeting, the judge found that the closed session was held in violation of the Open Meetings Law “because the subjects discussed during the executive session were not properly noticed.”
Under the Open Meetings Law, school boards and other government bodies in Colorado can meet in private to discuss certain sensitive issues. Before meeting, however, they must publish a public notice that cites the topic to be discussed and cites the specific exemptions under the law that explain why the board is meeting in private.
Judge Luxen concluded that some of the topics discussed during the March 23 meeting fell outside of the exemptions cited in the district’s public notice. School board members “did engage in a substantial discussion of matters” that the district failed to inform the public about before the meeting, he wrote.
Judge Luxen ordered the Denver Public Schools to release the entirety of the recording of the meeting by Monday. Since its order, the school board has appealed the ruling. Until the appeals court rules, the recording will remain inaccessible to the public.