As the Bryan County School System grapples with an investigation into allegations of a sexual relationship between a teacher and a student, the school district is showcasing its dedication to secrecy and the shadows of darkness.
On September 10, I was given some information related to the story now circulating in the media and the community about former Richmond Hill High School teacher and coach Scott Strickland. I have no interest in reporting on the allegations free of concrete evidence, so I made plans to file a handful of Open Records Requests with the school system, the Georgia Professional Standards Commission (which governs teaching certificates and ethics in education), and the Richmond Hill Police Department.
As a general rule, I don’t file Open Records Requests on Fridays because the weekend gives government officials too much time to ponder and plan how to respond to a request and even someone green to government antics knows that kind of thing is never in the best interest of transparency. As a result, all requests were filed first thing Monday morning (September 13).
Except for Bryan County Schools. Apparently the school system is operating under the belief that it has no obligation to provide pathways for the release of documents that belong to the public.
It’s worth noting that this is an active investigation involving law enforcement and those documents would not be subject to public release. Other documents related to how the school system handles those types of investigations are subject to release, even if redacted.
For starters, for a school district with an annual budget of $89 million, the Bryan County Schools website is absolutely abysmal. It also speaks volumes that the Open Records policies, procedures, and contact information for doing so is not readily available on the system website. School districts have been bound by Georgia sunshine laws for decades and even rural districts in the dusty corners of south Georgia have managed to outline the guidelines, assign an individual responsible for handling these requests, and do so in a timely manner.
At 8:30 a.m. on Monday morning, I called the central office to get a contact for the request. The secretary asked what it was about and while it is not necessary that I explain, I simply stated it had to do with a former employee. She told me that would be a matter for payroll and offered me the email address. I disagreed with her at the time but figured I would send an email to the payroll contact, explain what I was trying to do, and ask to be directed to the right person.
At 8:33 a.m., I sent an email and by the next day, I still had not heard anything. I sent another email on Tuesday morning at 9:23 a.m. and, expecting to again hear silence, I went ahead and emailed the Superintendent in hopes of him connecting the request to the appropriate person. I once again heard nothing.
I contacted the central office again on Thursday morning. This time, I specifically asked for the email of the Assistant to the Superintendent or to speak with that individual. The secretary asked if it was about a student and I said ‘No.’ She refused to connect me to administrative personnel and sent me to the person responsible for HR, which, of course, went to voicemail. I left a voicemail and I’m waiting to hear back.
The current count for time is four days to merely obtain the name and contact information for the person who can handle a request about a former employee who is under investigation – all of which should be available without having to pick up the phone, make an in-person visit, or seek a court order from a judge.
It’s worth noting that every other agency that received requests Monday morning has already confirmed receipt, gathered the documents, and fulfilled the requests, including the Richmond Hill Police Department – which has far fewer employees and resources than the school system.
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The question, however, is ‘Why?’
The story that this inquiry pertains to is a matter of concern for the public, for obvious reasons: it has to do with a teacher-student relationship and allegations of misconduct. But whether or not there is any merit to the allegations should not be overshadowed by the school system’s handling of this situation. There are legal and ethical obligations on the part of school administrators and the school system as a whole, even if the allegations are determined to be untrue.
At this point, it appears that the Bryan County School System is unwilling to even say who would be responsible for fulfilling those obligations, let alone answer whether or not those legal and ethical obligations have been met.