Reporters Committee attorneys represent WTHR in fight for access to public school employee disciplinary records
Attorneys for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have filed a lawsuit on behalf of WTHR, an NBC affiliate in Indianapolis, against the Hamilton Southeastern School District (HSE) following its refusal to comply with requests under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act (APRA).
For more than a year, WTHR and its senior investigative reporter, Bob Segall, have been attempting to get information about why the head football coach at Fishers High School — a public employee — was suspended by its Board of Education. WTHR’s records requests seek access to the factual basis for the suspension of the coach — information that is required to be disclosed under Indiana law but which HSE has refused to turn over.
“That HSE is continuing to withhold information from parents and taxpayers that the law requires be disclosed is unacceptable,” said Reporters Committee attorney Adam Marshall. “The community has a right to know the factual basis for disciplinary actions that are taken against employees at their public schools.”
Last year, WTHR filed multiple public records requests regarding the suspension of Fishers High School’s head football coach Rick Wimmer. HSE has repeatedly refused to release any details to WTHR about the basis for the suspension beyond vague assertions such as “not implementing instructions for classroom management strategies” and not following a Board of School Trustees policy. HSE has failed to disclose even the date of the incident that prompted the disciplinary action.
Other public school districts in the state have also failed to provide information about the basis for employees’ suspensions, resignations or administrative leave, keeping the details of those situations out of the public eye. Those failures have prompted WTHR and Segall to file multiple complaints with the Indiana Public Access Counselor.
Can they do that?
Indiana public records law requires all public agencies — including public school districts — to make available “the factual basis for a disciplinary action in which final action has been taken and that resulted in the employee being suspended, demoted, or discharged.”
According to an advisory opinion from Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, HSE’s responses to WTHR about why Wimmer was suspended did not comply with the law.
Because public employees “are stewards of the public’s trust, deficiencies in their duties warrant disclosure, in order that taxpayers are aware of how their resources are being utilized,” it states.
How did we get here?
Under Indiana law, if a requester believes a public agency isn’t complying with the APRA they can file a complaint with the Public Access Counselor, who will evaluate it and issue an advisory opinion.
In this case, after Britt issued his first advisory opinion, Segall followed up with HSE and its counsel, requesting compliance with it. When they refused to provide any more information, Segall filed another complaint with the Public Access Counselor. In a second advisory opinion, Britt reiterated that taxpayers — whose money helps pay public school employees’ salaries — have the right to know what’s going on in their school district.
“Public school employees, including teachers, coaches, administrators, superintendents and school board members work for and on behalf of the public at large. They are servants of the people,” Britt wrote.
After a second records request to HSE was met with another vague response, and the Public Access Counselor issued a third advisory opinion, WTHR filed suit on June 8, 2018. The complaint alleges that “HSE has repeatedly refused to provide WTHR with the ‘factual basis’ for Mr. Wimmer’s suspension” despite the “clear statutory mandate” in the APRA that it must do so.
Through the lawsuit, “WTHR seeks to vindicate its and the public’s right to information about the actions of government entities and officials under the APRA.”
WTHR is represented by Reporters Committee attorneys and Indianapolis attorney Mike Wilkins of Broyles Kight and Ricafort, P.C. The case is pending in Hamilton County Superior Court.