Do student discipline cases deserve to be on the front page if school officials, because of privacy laws, cannot comment on them and thus defend their actions?
It's the age-old, three-way tension among privacy, fairness and the right to know. Does the fact that one side in a case is legally muzzled mean that no sides get out?
The Daily Sun confronted this dilemma recently when we learned that middle school officials had recommended a 12-year-old be expelled for bringing a knife to school. Normally, such cases are impossible to cover, even though they are of significant public interest. The only way we can obtain credible information is if the student's family shares the disciplinary file with us.
In this case, that is exactly what happened. The family not only gave us copies of the student's disciplinary records but agreed to open the expulsion hearing to the public, which includes the press.
As a result, even though school officials could not comment directly on the case, we had their findings and recommendations in the file, along with the family's response. We supplemented the school file with police reports, which, contrary to popular belief, are public documents even when they concern minors. (The Daily Sun does not name juvenile offenders as a matter of policy, not law.)
One question that arose in the course of our reporting the story was how did we know we had the complete file. What if the family had left out documents that were unflattering toward the student or even incriminating?
That objection, we felt, would be met at the open hearing, where all relevant documents would have to be entered into the record and school officials would have a chance to respond.
As it turned out, the first hearing was largely procedural — the hearing officer granted a request by the family for further behavioral and academic evaluation of the student. If the student is reclassified as having special needs that amount to a disability, the expulsion recommendation likely would be tabled or even become moot — federal law all but prohibits the expulsion of such a student.
That raises the next question: Without a hearing on the substance of the case to determine the credibility of the case file, why run the story at all?
The answer is that the documents we did have appeared to be complete. The reports raised no issues that were not subsequently addressed by the other side. In other words, although the school and family disagreed over the expulsion, they were laying all their cards on the table.
Why was such a case news in the first place?
It was different — FUSD has expelled only one student in the past five years.
It was timely — the student cited gang threats in Sunnyside, which have been very much in the news.
And it was important — how educators balance a safe and productive learning environment with their responsibility to help even severely troubled 12-year-olds become educated citizens goes to the heart of the problems facing schools today.
A community newspaper has to be committed to covering these kinds of stories, no matter how many legal and logistical roadblocks are thrown in its way. We think we struck a decent balance among privacy, fairness and the right to know. And we acknowledge there is still more to report. Let me know if you disagree — and why.
Randy Wilson is editor of the Arizona Daily Sun. You can reach him at email@example.com or 556-2254.