Editorial: Hartford School District Must Reveal Settlement Terms

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Anyone seeking to confirm the suspicion that officials in Vermont routinely seek to evade the spirit and letter of the state’s Public Records Law need look no further than the Hartford School District’s current refusal to reveal the terms of a settlement reached in a federal sexual harassment lawsuit.

As staff writer Jordan Cuddemi has reported, the school district was sued in 2016 by parents who alleged that their then-5-year-old son had been sexually abused and harassed by a fellow pupil at the Ottauquechee School during the 2012-13 school year. The suit claimed that the abuse continued despite their repeated attempts to get the staff and superintendent to address it, allegations that the school district denied.

On March 20, six days before the case was scheduled to go to trial, the parties reached a settlement and filed a motion, still pending as of this writing, to seal it. Meanwhile, district Superintendent Tom DeBalsi denied a public records request by the Valley News to disclose the terms, citing three exemptions to the law: “student records, records relevant to litigation and records relating specifically to negotiation of contracts.”

All three grounds for denial are spurious. The settlement of a lawsuit in no way creates a student record exempt from disclosure (and in this case, the lawsuit was filed anonymously anyway). One of the district’s lawyers claims that the exemption is valid because the case involves a student and events that occurred at school. Under that theory, Vermont school districts would be free to withhold any and all records, since virtually every activity undertaken in schools involves students.

Nor can a lawsuit settlement be construed as a contract under the Public Records Law. That exemption applies to employment contracts and was intended to do so. And while the litigation exemption may apply while the case is still pending, it disappears once the settlement is final.

The terms of settlements in private lawsuits are often subject to nondisclosure agreements, but those involving public bodies such as the Hartford School District cannot be sealed consistent with the Public Records Law, which states that, “Officers of government are trustees and servants of the people and it is in the public interest to enable any person to review and criticize their decisions even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment. All people, however, have a right to privacy in their personal and economic pursuits, which ought to be protected unless specific information is needed to review the action of a governmental officer.”

The public has a compelling interest in disclosure of the terms of this settlement, not only because public money is involved but also as a means to hold officials accountable. The amount paid to the family by the district is an indicator of the strength of the case against it and is, as such, a way to assess how well or poorly school officials performed in protecting the child involved. And if the terms include, for instance, the requirement that the district implement training protocols to make its response to such complaints more effective in the future, then that is information that the public has a right and need to know.

Lia Ernst, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, told Cuddemi, “We see here an agency stretching an exemption well beyond its intent, another unfortunate example of many Vermont agencies’ reflexive denial of public records requests.”

“Stretching” is an understatement; torturing is a more accurate characterization. And one can only hope that such denials are merely reflexive. More likely they are calculated to avoid the scrutiny of official actions that the Public Records Law is designed to secure.