Wilmette schools argument for withholding bullying comments is 'weak,' legal group says
Wilmette Public Schools District 39 has weak, if any, grounds for withholding comments that came with a survey of teachers, students and parents to assess the level of bullying in its schools, according to a Dec. 4 letter from the Liberty Justice Center (LJC) filed with the state Attorney General’s Public Access Bureau.
The bureau is reviewing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from North Cook News to review the comments after the results indicated that children who espoused conservative beliefs were bullied at a rate second only to students bullied for their race. Many district parents, led by the neighborhood group New Trier Neighbors, are likewise anxious to see the results to determine if the bullying is coming principally from students, teachers, or both, and where it is most frequently occurring.
District 39 denied North Cook News' initial FOIA request, citing, among other arguments, an exemption for certain predecisional “drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda in which opinions are expressed or policies or actions are formulated” when such records have not been “publicly cited by the head of the public body.”
But the LJC, citing court findings, says that the information contained in the survey responses must be disclosed because it is factual in nature.
“Purely factual material must be disclosed once a final decision has been made, unless the factual material is inextricably intertwined with predecisional and deliberative discussions,” the letter stated.
District 39 also claimed “requiring public disclosure of these opinions would discourage governments from soliciting feedback.”
The LJC says that the fact that it might discourage government entities from conducting surveys is “not a sufficient reason to withhold the records.
“Access to public records always has the potential to embarrass public officials by exposing certain facts and therefore always creates some incentive for officials to avoid creating public records in the first place,” LJC said.
A strategic plan for District 39 released after the survey results cites race and religion as reasons some students were being bullied and recommended “proactive measures need to be made in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusiveness.”
But students saying that they were bullied for their religion barely registered a blip on the survey results, and the strategic plan made no mention of the kids bullied for their conservative views.
In June, at a special meeting of the Wilmette school board, Erin Stone, president of the Community Review Committee (CRC), an advisory body to the school board, said the comments of parents whose children were being bullied for their race and ethnicity were “heartbreaking.”
Stone mentioned the bullying of conservative kids and acknowledged comments from parents, teachers and students concerning those kids, but included no description of the nature of the comments.
Here, the LJC said that even if the exemption cited by the district would hold, the public reciting of some of the comments by the head of the CRC would nullify that exemption.
The fight over the survey has created an uproar in the community. In mid-November Superintendent Ray Lechner took the unusual move of sending a memo to all District 39 parents to give them “the facts from the district’s perspective” in defending its decision not to release the survey comments. The superintendent insisted in the memo that the district is “committed to transparency.”
The attorney general’s office said that it could provide no timeline for when its Public Access Bureau might reach a decision on the FOIA.