CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The Charleston County School District paid out $100,000 in a settlement earlier this year, but the district’s lawyers are now refusing to fully release the public documents that would explain why.
The district paid that amount for a “student injury” on July 13, according to a list of the district’s settlements obtained through a Freedom of Information request by Live 5 News.
In response to a request in August, the school district initially declined to provide any additional information about the settlement. More than a month later, after another request, they released the associated settlement agreements on Oct. 12.
The two documents showed that this settlement involved a lawsuit that was filed in federal court. However, both documents were redacted of all information that would explain what happened and who else was involved.
The district’s lawyers also redacted the name of the attorney for the plaintiffs along with the case number that would allow the publicly available documents to be found through the court’s website.
Media Attorney Jay Bender said there’s no basis to redact that information.
“I think the crucial question here is what was the circumstance that created an injury to a student or students that justified a $100,000 payment and have there been steps taken to prevent such injury from happening in the future,” Bender said. “That’s why the district court doesn’t allow secret settlements that are approved by the court, because that prevents members of the public from learning where danger lurks in our society.”
In response to the redacted documents, attorney Kaitlin Gurney, who represents Live 5 News, wrote a letter back to the school district on Oct. 20.
“While [Live 5 News] appreciates that the School District ultimately fulfilled this FOIA request after originally denying it, it has serious concerns about the extent of the redactions in the two settlement documents produced as they go well outside the scope permitted by either FOIA or the Family Educational Rights to Privacy Act,” Gurney wrote.
She added Live 5 News does not challenge the decision to redact the name of the student but pushed for “revised copies of the settlement documents with narrower redactions.”
After a few weeks, School District General Counsel Natalie Ham responded with another letter declining to provide more information.
“[Live 5 News’] Freedom of Information Act request is sufficient because the redacted information will identify the student,” Ham wrote on Nov. 16. “The information [Live 5 News] considers to be inappropriately redacted is information that alone or in combination, is linked or linkable to a specific student that would allow a reasonable person in the school community, who does not have personal knowledge of the relevant circumstances, to identify the student with reasonable certainty.”
School district spokesperson Andy Pruitt stood by the decision in a statement released Wednesday.
“The district understands the need for transparency to the public, but we must also balance that with our duty and legal requirements to protect the privacy of students,” Pruitt said. “The circumstances surrounding this matter are so incredibly unique that the release of any of the redacted information would almost certainly result in the identification of the student, which would put us in direct violation of federal law.”
“I’m always cynical when it comes to a school district or almost any other public body using the word transparent in the process of denying information to the public,” Bender said.
Live 5 News will continue to push for answers.