Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly NewsBlast. Written by Attorney Thomas B. Mooney.
Dear Legal Mailbag:
I have heard of the Freedom of Information Act; however, in my administrative preparation courses, the professors glossed over it and I never really understood the nuances of public records and the concomitant disclosure requirements. I must catch up quickly now, because there is a gadfly who unfortunately has set his sights on my school. He has asked to look at our curriculum, our employee handbook, our student handbook, and even teacher lesson plans. I have done my best to provide him access to these records, but my cooperation seems only to feed his interest in getting more and more information about my school.
Last week, he made a request that causes me great concern. In one of his regular FOIA requests, he asked to see “the final school safety and security plan” for my school, as well as blueprints for the school building. I have been involved in the review and implementation of our plan, and I can easily provide it to him. Moreover, I don’t think that this pain in the neck is a terrorist or anything. But, I don’t like the idea of releasing this plan to anyone. Can I just say no?
Better Safe Than Sorry
Thank you for writing. You can’t just say no. However, there is a statutory procedure whereby I am confident that you can eventually say no, and you can keep the school safety and security plan confidential in the meantime.
The Freedom of Information Act defines “public records” broadly as “any recorded data or information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, received or retained by a public agency, or to which a public agency is entitled to receive a copy by law or contract under section 1-218, whether such data or information be handwritten, typed, tape-recorded, printed, photostated, photographed or recorded by any other method,” and the school security and safety plan is thus clearly a “public record.” Significantly, however, many public records are exempt from disclosure, such as student records. School security and safety plans may also be exempt from disclosure, but there is a statutory procedure one must go through.
Specifically, Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 1-210(b)(19) provides that certain public records are exempt from disclosure if there are reasonable grounds to believe that disclosure of those records would pose a safety risk. The list of such records set out in the statute includes “security manuals and reports,” among other documents related to security. Unfortunately, however, neither you nor the superintendent may make that determination unilaterally. Rather, the statute provides that the Commissioner of Emergency Services and Public Protection, in consultation with the superintendent, must make that determination. In any event, when you have such reasonable grounds to be concerned that providing access to a public record may pose a safety risk, you are free to decline to provide such information as may be requested under the FOIA. When such a request is made, you should involve the superintendent, submit the records to the Commissioner of Emergency Services and Public Protection for his/her review, and wait for a decision. Stay safe!
P.S. Teachers are not considered public officials under the FOIA, and thus their lesson plans are not considered public records retained by a public agency subject to disclosure. However, the status of lesson plans under the FOIA could change if you collect the lesson plans. As a principal, you are likely to be considered a public official, and records you retain are likely to be subject to the FOIA.
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