Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly NewsBlast. Written by Attorney Thomas B. Mooney.
Dear Legal Mailbag:
As the principal of a large high school, I get a lot of letters. I have been around, and I know all about keeping legitimate items of correspondence in accordance with the Record Retention Schedule of the Public Records Administrator. But I have been uncertain about what to do with the occasional anonymous letter that I receive. Some of these letters are quite graphic, and I am offended by not only their content, but also by the cowardice of the senders.
Of course, I don’t put any stock into such letters. Accordingly, I have instructed my secretary simply to toss these anonymous letters and not even bother me with them. Given how anyone can say anything anonymously, I don’t want to burden my perceptions of my staff members with false impressions that I might get if I read such letters. However, I have learned a lot from reading “Legal Mailbag,” and I would appreciate your letting me know if you would suggest another approach to dealing with anonymous letters.
Ignorance is Bliss
There are at least three things wrong with your approach. First, anonymous letters may be unreliable, but they may contain important information. To be sure, some anonymous letters are simply hateful and provide no information relevant to your responsibilities as principal. However, you have a duty at least to read these letters. Information in such a letter may be easily and discretely investigated, and you may well have reasonable cause to look into the allegations after reading such a letter. You are free to (and should) remain skeptical of anonymous letters. But by ignoring such letters, you may be found later to have been willfully ignorant of an important issue at your school.
Second, in most cases it is appropriate to share the anonymous letter with the person targeted. If someone were writing nasty anonymous letters about me, I would certainly want to know, and I imagine that any staff member whose reputation is being maligned in an anonymous letter would want to know as well. I would rather apologize to a staff member for upsetting him or her by sharing an anonymous letter than explain after the fact why I did not share the information when I received it. A staff member who learns about an anonymous letter may be able to figure out who is behind the letter and then take action to protect him- or herself.
Third (and you are not going to like this), the record retention requirements for correspondence (e.g., two years for routine correspondence) do not specify that you must only retain letters that are signed. For better or worse, anonymous letters that relate to the business of the school district are public records and should be retained in accordance with law.
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