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School district claims, settlement in rape case must be disclosed

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School district claims, settlement in rape case must be disclosed 05/04/98 CALIFORNIA--A state appeals court in San Diego ruled in…

School district claims, settlement in rape case must be disclosed

05/04/98

CALIFORNIA–A state appeals court in San Diego ruled in mid-April that a newspaper publisher may have access to damage claims and a settlement agreement arising out of the broomstick rape of a high school freshman by three baseball teammates.

The decisions came in two cases arising out of requests by the San Diego Union-Tribune for records concerning the same incident.

The claims forms, submitted by students who alleged that their school district tolerated abusive hazing practices, are not covered by exemptions for ongoing litigation, privacy or educational records, the court unanimously held April 13. The exemption for records that pertain to pending litigation applies only to documents created by a public entity, the court said.

Disclosure would not constitute an invasion of privacy because the students who submitted tort claims have shown no reasonable expectation of privacy, and the information sought is relevant to a “legitimate and important competing public interest in ending school hazing practices potentially endangering many children,” Justice James McIntyre wrote.

The claims forms are not “pupil records” or “educational records” that must be withheld under state and federal laws, the court ruled. “Just because a litigant has chosen to sue a school does not transmogrify the . . . claim into such a record,” the court said.

No compelling reason exists to seal the settlement agreement reached between the district and the victim of the assault, a three- judge panel found in an opinion filed the following week.

The interest in knowing how public funds are spent outweighs the student’s interest in sealing the amount of the settlement, the court held.

Three sophomore baseball players at Rancho Bernardo High School pleaded guilty to the March 1997 assault of a 15-year-old teammate in the school’s locker room. Several students then filed complaints under the California Tort Claims Act alleging that they had also been the victims of violent hazing and that the school district negligently failed to protect them. The school district settled with the assault victim for an undisclosed amount of money.

The Union-Tribune sued for access to the records in superior court in San Diego after the district refused to disclose them. A trial court judge ordered the damage claims released and the district appealed. When another judge refused to unseal the settlement agreement, Copley Press appealed. (Poway Unified School District v. The Superior Court of San Diego County; Copley Press, Inc. v. The Superior Court of San Diego County; Media Counsel: Guylyn Cummins, San Diego)