School District attorney in favor of keeping incidents secret
Protecting the privacy rights of juveniles trumps the rights of parents and the general public when it comes to the release of information regarding crimes on area campuses, according to Aiken School District attorney Bill Burkhalter. He argues that means school officials should not be compelled to even confirm or deny a criminal act.
That position is clearly in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act, according to media law expert and press freedom advocate Jay Bender.
Bender, attorney for the S.C. Press Association, explained that while juvenile names may be withheld, that fact shouldn't influence law enforcement and school officials from providing the rest of the information about an alleged crime. “A crime is a still crime. It's neither juvenile nor adult,” Bender said.
Despite that, if the S.C. Attorney General's office rules in favor of Aiken Public Safety's request to keep secret general details of any incidents involving juveniles, Burkhalter said he would consider such a ruling a positive.
He said it would benefit the district in exploring the public's right to know and help protect the rights of juveniles.
Currently, Aiken Public Safety has not answered questions from the publication, The Jail Report, and its publisher, Greg Rickabaugh, about a possible sexual assault at Aiken Middle School. Rickabaugh, in turn, filed a Freedom of Information Act document, leading Aiken police and city officials to turn to the attorney general's office to keep the information under wraps.
In the wake of Rickabaugh's FOI and rumors circulating on social media, District administrators collaborated on a letter and statement they say addressed the situation to send home to parents, said Aiken School Board attorney Bill Burkhalter. A robocall also let parents know the statement was coming. The statement did not address the question at hand, but simply explained the school district “is not in the business of publicizing student disciplinary matters, nor does state or federal law allow it to do so.” There was no mention of sexual assault, rape or the media request that prompted the statement's release in the first place.
Superintendent Dr. Beth Everitt did indicate in a telephone interview that an incident at the school did happen, but “the rumor of a rape is not accurate, based on what we have,” Everitt said. While saying what it was not, Everitt did not elaborate on what actually did transpire.
Stating he was not addressing this specific situation, Burkhalter calls “rape” a lay term that covers the gamut of sexual misconduct. But if District administrators think a criminal violation may have occurred, he said, they err on the side of caution and contact law enforcement. What concerns him is the social media that, in the interval, spreads those rumors.
“That's my mantra,” Burkhalter said, “that Facebook is the bane of public education. We have to deal with whatever rumors and half-truths are out there.”
The statement to parents cites that the District only contacts them as a group if there is a possible threat to the safety of students. Parents also will be contacted in another circumstance that appears to apply to this situation, although the statement cites generic actions “taken to address a situation that was widely publicized with the school community and (is) believed by the community to have created an unsafe condition.”
The School District handles its disciplinary investigations with the understanding that when called in, law enforcement will conduct a parallel one as well. The District must protect its records and student identifications, related to discipline, and such matters are an extension of federal regulations, Burkhalter said.
He acknowledged that some situations – such as a lunchroom fight that results in five arrests – may not prevent student identifications. Yet in other incidents, the students may be minors and even though their conduct may be consensual, an arrest could still occur.
If the District releases any information, including the school's name, people “will know who the student is,” said Burkhalter. “That's the reason the federal law is so restrictive. We have the rights of juveniles and also protecting the school's environment as to safety. We have all these considerations, and it's not an easy problem to solve.”
The following is the statement the School District sent to parents:
The Consolidated School District of Aiken County strives continuously to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for all its students. An important part of that effort includes having a fair but strict disciplinary Code and school procedures in place to implement the same when the need arises. The District respects student confidentiality and is not in the business of publicizing student disciplinary matters, nor does state or federal law allow it to do so. Some disciplinary misconduct may also be a violation of the criminal law. When that happens, or is believed to be possible under given circumstances, school officials contact law enforcement which then makes its own investigation into the reported conduct and takes such action as it determines is warranted if a violation of law is found to exist. Law enforcement also has restrictions on what personal identifications they can make.
The School District will only contact parents (as a group) if a circumstance is believed to present an ongoing threat to the safety of students, or, on occasion, to explain generically actions taken to address a situation that was widely publicized within the school community and believed by the community to have created an unsafe condition.
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.