Balancing Privacy & The Right To Public Records

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April 18, 2017 3:08 PM

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As a retired federal civil servant, I understand the importance of privacy in my employment records.  But as someone that returned to journalism after a 28 year interregnum, I also understand the public’s right to know what public employees are up to.

Those two concepts have come together in the case of the Fishers High School varsity football coach’s recent five-day suspension.  Striking the right balance is a challenge, and is part of a tug-of-war now happening between the Hamilton Southeastern School Corporation and the investigative news team at WTHR, Channel 13.

The Hamilton Southeastern School Board approved the suspension of Coach Rick Wimmer by listing it in the “consent agenda”, normally a routine set of actions approved at nearly every board session. No name was listed, he was identified only by employee number.

WTHR later demanded to know the name and school officials finally relented by identifying Wimmer as the suspended employee.  Administrators insist the policy to identify suspended employees by number (not naming them) was made earlier in the year and this was the first suspension since the policy changed.

When WTHR asked why Wimmer was suspended, Hamilton Southeastern Schools cited some general policies about teacher conduct and following guidelines on managing a classroom.  Wimmer is also a teacher at Fishers High School.

WTHR went to the Indiana Public Access Counselor’s office for an advisory opinion.  Counselor Luke Britt wrote an opinion saying the Hamilton Southeastern Schools must disclose more specific facts relating to the decision to suspend Coach Wimmer.

Now, school officials remain unwilling to disclose any specific information about why Wimmer’s suspension was handed down.  As a result, WTHR has filed a formal complaint with the Public Access Counselor, arguing the school corporation has violated state law by withholding information on this suspension.

The Hamilton Southeastern School officials are prepared to stick with their position of safeguarding employees’ personnel records.  WTHR is equally determined to force the release of that information.

If you read the entire opinion of Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, it is his clear view that the school corporation must disclose facts specifically related to why the decision was made to suspend Rick Wimmer.  The fact that this coach is highly successful and has won a state championship makes this a more high profile case, resulting in WTHR’s interest.

Hamilton Southeastern School officials should follow the advice of Luke Britt and disclose specific facts about this suspension.  It is my view this can be accomplished without unduly violating Coach Wimmer’s privacy rights.

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