Last week, we inaugurated the Sunshine Troublemaker of the Week award, knowing that sometimes, people who file open records are vilified by the government entity from whom they seek records.
The award was intended somewhat lightheartedly but it appears that Diana Pharr, our second recipient of the Sunshine Troublemaker of the Week award, may have paid a very significant price in retaliation for her efforts to bring accountability to her school district.
The school district in question is Eanes Independent School District, a wealthy public school district in the suburbs of Austin, Texas.
Yesterday, on the national Education News website, Pharr published How a school district responds to requests for public information says much about trust and confidence.
The article provides an extremely disturbing picture of a retaliatory, out-of-control school board and administration that worked hard to embarrass and humiliate Pharr and her family after she began working with a group of teachers and parents to keep members of the Eanes school community informed, through providing key budget and other materials on a website she built.
Shortly after Pharr built that transparency website, in November 2003, the Eanes ISD published her young son’s confidential information, including medical information, and released it to the public in writing during a board meeting.
That’s absolutely shocking. The school board and the administration claimed that the release of this confidential information was “inadvertent”.
Nevertheless, when Pharr tried to resolve the matter, the Eanes ISD school board hired an outside (no doubt expensive) attorney to represent the administration rather than take steps to apologize and remediate the situation. Pharr represented her son. Not surprisingly, at the hearing in front of the school board, the school board ruled against Pharr.
Pharr then submitted a formal complaint to the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., and I’ll let her tell the rest of the story:
Again, the district retained attorneys to battle my child’s privacy rights. I represented my son pro se. In January 2005, when the agency ruled against the district and found that it did not comply with FERPA law, Eanes ISD could have simply complied with the federal law, protected children, and changed their policy and procedure – at no cost to the district. Instead the district again retained attorneys to appeal the adverse finding. Again, I represented my son (and therefore every other child whose records are maintained by public schools) pro se. Again, in March 2007, the U.S. Department of Education confirmed its finding against Eanes ISD.
A point to ponder: the district described the release of my child’s confidential information as “inadvertent.” Yet our district leadership chose to retain tax-funded attorneys to battle my child’s privacy rights. Inadvertent?
Indeed, the Eanes ISD hired tax-funded attorneys three separate times to avoid being held accountable for its invasion of this child’s privacy and to avoid instituting protections for the privacy of other children.
As a mother, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to work up the nerve to promote transparency in a school district that doesn’t seem to be interested. To then have my child’s private school and medical records “inadvertently” released to the public shortly after I began to do this work? How sickening and intolerable.
Perhaps this is why a sidebar quote on Pharr’s website reads:
If you aren’t completely appalled, you haven’t been paying attention.