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N.D. bill restricting public access to teachers' personnel files introduced

BISMARCK - A bill introduced to the State Legislature on Thursday that would restrict access to school district records is the latest in a trio of bills aiming to exempt certain information from the state's open records laws.

BISMARCK – A bill introduced to the State Legislature on Thursday that would restrict access to school district records is the latest in a trio of bills aiming to exempt certain information from the state’s open records laws.

Senate Bill 2153 would seal relevant records in a school district employee’s file should that employee be charged with a crime in district court. The records would become publicly available after the criminal complaint against the employee was resolved.

The bill’s sponsors say that by withholding records relating to an employee facing criminal charges, school districts would better protect the reputation and privacy of the accused.

The bill would, for example, keep private an investigation by a school district that led to a criminal complaint until the end of the criminal case.

“We’re concerned about rumor, innuendo, that kind of thing,” said Jon Martinson, executive director of the North Dakota School Boards Association, which lobbied for the bill. “We’re trying to protect the reputation of people involved until the complaint has been resolved.”

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The bill’s sponsors denied that it was in any way a reaction to the criminal charges against Aaron Knodel, a West Fargo teacher who was named North Dakota’s teacher of the year in 2014. Knodel faces five felony counts of corruption of a minor and is scheduled for a March trial.

Martinson said he could not point to a specific incident that spurred the bill, but that he received calls from more than one school district asking for the public record exemption.

“Without this legislation, it puts school district employees in a really difficult situation because it is an open record, yet the issue is an ongoing investigation,” he said.

State Sen. David Rust, a co-sponsor of the bill, said he believed it would “prevent somebody from being tried in the court of public opinion.”

Jack McDonald, an attorney for the North Dakota Newspaper Association that opposes the bill, noted that criminal charges against any person are filed publicly in district court, often in great detail. Protecting the privacy of a school employee facing criminal charges, McDonald said, would be a lost cause.

“So, what privacy are we talking about?” McDonald said. “All the details of whatever complaint it is are already in the public record.”

The bill would protect the school district from revealing documents, which could lead to scrutiny, for as long as a criminal case drags on, which could take months or years, McDonald said.

“It would be a big, big dent in the open records law if this was enacted,” he said.

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The bill is the third this legislative session to attempt to create exemptions to the state’s open records laws. Senate Bill 2133 would remove university students’ email, home and mailing addresses, as well as phone numbers, from the public record. The bill, introduced Tuesday, is a reaction to a mass open records request for students’ contact information by Odney Advertising, which consults for the Republican Party.

Senate Bill 2134 would allow the State Board of Higher Education to discuss in private the hiring or firing of a chancellor. It would also make confidential all records used to prepare performance evaluations of top education officials.  

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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