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Schools cannot release criminal records list

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MICHIGAN   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Feb. 16, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MICHIGAN   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Feb. 16, 2006

Schools cannot release criminal records list

  • A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order to prevent officials from releasing an inaccurate list of school employees with criminal convictions.

Feb. 16, 2006  ·   Michigan school districts cannot release a list of state school employees with criminal records, a federal judge in Detroit ruled, ordering the district to return the list to the state because it is allegedly inaccurate.

U.S. District Judge Paul V. Gadola’s temporary restraining order Wednesday came on the heels of an Ingham County Circuit Court order prohibiting the state Department of Education from granting state Freedom of Information Act requests for the list.

Releasing a list of employees with criminal records that might contain the names of innocent people could cause irreparable harm, Gadola ruled. In response to a motion from the Michigan branch of the American Federation of Teachers to keep the list secret, Gadola granted a 10-day temporary restraining order against the education department, the state police and the state, ordering them not to release the information.

“The Court finds that even though the current list is only a ‘preliminary’ list, there is still danger of immediate and irreparable harm to Plaintiffs . . . as there is a very great likelihood that an innocent person named on the list will suffer an injury to their reputation and a possible discharge of employment,” Gadola wrote.

The Michigan State Police compiled the list last summer to comply with a state law targeting sex offenders. A police search of the state’s criminal database revealed school employees with more than 4,600 criminal offenses, of which 2,200 were felonies that included murder, sex crimes and kidnapping, The Detroit News reported Saturday.

The paper filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the list in January, but the 160,000-member Michigan Education Association opposed its release, arguing in Ingham County Circuit Court that the list is inaccurate. Judge Joyce Draganchuk ruled last week that releasing the list to the media would violate the integrity of teachers and other school employees who are named wrongfully, The Associated Press reported.

Judge Draganchuk’s ruling followed a previous temporary restraining order she issued Jan. 31. At last week’s hearing, a state police official testified that the list is preliminary and a new, more accurate list should be available by March 1

“I think the judge continued the injunction because she felt the list was very flawed, with many false positives,” said James E. Stewart, a lawyer who represents the News.”And the fact that a new list would be out as soon as March 1 . . . I think that impacted her thinking.”

The “false positives” in the list probably resulted from database matches involving common names and stolen Social Security numbers, state officials have said.

Regardless, inaccuracies on the list do not make the information it contains less essential to the public, Stewart said.

“There is no question that in addition to false positives, there are true positives,” he said, adding, “There are teachers right now in schools with criminal convictions, and we don’t know who they are.”

A state law that went into effect Jan. 1, requires any school employee convicted of a sex offense to be fired immediately. Employees convicted of any other felony must receive approval from the superintendent and school board to keep their jobs.

David Hecker, president of the 35,000-member AFT Michigan chapter, said the union does not oppose releasing an accurate list of names of people affected by the law. However, the inaccurate list already has caused great stress to innocent people, he said.

“If someone’s a danger to children, they should not be in the schools,” Hecker said. “But you shouldn’t have to prove your innocence. They should have to prove your guilt.”

Both Stewart and Hecker said they doubt the matter will be resolved soon, even if an updated list is issued March 1. Hecker said until a list is produced that does not include the names of innocent people, the union is prepared to continue its court fight.

The News has no intention of dropping its request for the information, Stewart said. A News series last April on teacher sex abuse prompted the Legislature to pass the new laws in the first place, he said.

“What you have here is a newspaper and some reporters doing the kind of public interest reporting that matters,” he said.

(AFT Michiganv. Michigan; Media Counsel: James E. Stewart, Butzel Long, Ann Arbor, Mich.) — AB

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