CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The Charleston County School District failed to follow the law when it comes to turning over public information.
The entity is months delayed in providing answers to a Freedom of Information Act Request submitted by Live 5 on March 30 of this year.
Despite repeated attempts to get an update on the request, CCSD did not respond until last week.
However, the records have still not been provided.
$300,000 SETTLEMENT SPARKED INTEREST
A recent Live 5 investigation uncovered a CCSD elementary school employee named Marvin Gethers was not fired despite district IT staff finding child pornography on his school laptop four years ago.
Our series of stories about the Gethers situation all began with one document we noted months ago in Charleston County court records: A $300,000 settlement with an 11-year-old student.
Sources, personnel records and police files eventually allowed us to connect that settlement to Marvin Gethers.
The parent advocate was not only charged with possessing the child pornography but also charged with two counts of sexually molesting minor students.
One of those students was the unnamed minor in the settlement.
Gethers died in 2017 before going to trial.
The school district denied wrongdoing, but settled with the child in March 2018.
The Live 5 Investigates team is interested in what other settlements the district has paid out in recent years.
LIVE 5 REQUESTED DOCUMENTS SEVEN MONTHS AGO
On March 30, 2018 Investigative Reporter Carter Coyle submitted a FOIA request to CCSD asking for a list of settlements and payouts in the district over the last 5 years.
Many South Carolina cities, counties and school districts are insured by the State Insurance Reserve Fund, which posts settlement information online.
But some districts, such as DD2, DD4 and CCSD, use different insurers.
DD2 and DD4 provided the settlement information in response to our March FOIA requests.
Charleston County Schools did not.
South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act requires an acknowledgement of a FOIA request within 10 days, and then a production of the documents within 35 days.
Because some of the records we requested are older than 24 months, the law allows entities a bit longer to respond.
By law, CCSD had 20 business days to acknowledge our request and then 35 days to produce the records.
They acknowledged it after 41 days saying it was in progress but never produced the records.
It’s now been 148 business days, more than 7 months, since we made our request.
RECORDS PROMISED BY NOVEMBER 8th
Coyle repeatedly emailed and called about the request. Our attorneys sent a letter to CCSD in July and called General Counsel Natalie Ham, but we didn’t get a response.
We provided a copy of that letter in person to CCSD Communications staff.
We sent another letter last week, alerting the school district we’d be airing a story about their failure to respond and that legal action may follow.
Ham responded to our attorney on October 25th, saying they’d turn over the records in ten business days.
“My apologies as this got held up in my office. Unfortunately this one was not as easy as producing a report from our insurance company and every time I went to work on it, I got pulled away and it eventually got buried on my desk. Thank you for reaching out,” Ham said in an email.
SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS ARE CONCERNED
CCSD school board member Michael Miller said, “It’s sad on our part that we aren’t fulfilling our obligation to the public.”
Miller said the delay is inexcusable.
“I’m not happy with the fact that it’s taken so long to get the information you requested. I have to apologize for this, even though I wasn’t directly involved.
He said the school board used to get frequent updates about potential lawsuits and settlements.
“Those cases stopped coming to us. It caused me to pause and be concerned. Were those suits being settled without the board?”
It’s hard to tell since we haven’t received the settlements yet.
RECENT FOIA HEARING FOR ANOTHER LAWSUIT
We aren’t the only citizens having trouble getting records under FOIA from CCSD.
Charleston attorneys Mark Peper and David Aylor recently sued the district for not turning over video evidence of a boy allegedly being attacked at school.
At the FOIA hearing, the judge found out the district deleted those videos, which he said could have been evidence in a lawsuit.
The judge called it “grossly negligent.” CCSD wouldn’t comment.
Miller said, “We must have community trust and conduct our business in transparent ways. If we don’t have that- what do we really have?”
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division confirmed they are investigating communication sent to a local state Representative, Wendell Gilliard.
Local community activist, Johnathan Thrower, is accused of sending Gilliard threatening text messages.
Thrower has been very outspoken about CCSD in both the Gethers investigation and the case of the rats at Garret Academy.
Thrower denies these accusations and told Live 5 it’s “completely bogus.”
He also told Live 5 he hasn’t heard from SLED.
Thrower has been interviewed in several Live 5 news stories and was interviewed for this FOIA piece.
We opted not to include his comments after finding out he was under investigation by SLED.