The following article is an opinion piece and represents the views of only the author and not those of TGV News.
The Bulloch County School System recently ventured so far outside of the bounds of ‘the proper role of government’ and the scope of their own authority, that it is deserving of a good ol’ fashioned stoning (with words, of course) in the court of public opinion.
Last week, during an employee discipline hearing, a representative with the school system asked a student journalist from Georgia Southern, who was recording the meeting for class, if the school system could ‘hold’ the media card from the camera until a faculty supervisor was consulted. The issue, for the school system, was that the employee discipline hearing was over allegations of a teacher placing his hands on a student – the second of such in a month’s time – on school property.
Employee discipline hearings are conducted in public settings, are open to the public, and are covered under the Georgia Open Meetings Act because all of the elected board members gather collectively to meet.
The hearing was held on Tuesday evening and WSAV reported on the absolutely outrageous North Korea-esque collection of the media device the following day after reaching out to both the student from the meeting and the school system. The school system has taken on the ‘We were just looking out for students’ position while the student says she felt a little bit intimidated because the school district representative told her she could “get sued for having the footage and that I could get into a lot of trouble because I have no credentials.”
You may be thinking, “We should give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, they were talking about juveniles.”
But that is simply an unacceptable response…and precisely why we are here with this column. But it gets worse.
In the ‘aftermath,’ the school system released this statement to WSAV:
The Bulloch County Board of Education held a specially-called meeting at 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday, January 31, 2023, pursuant to Georgia’s Fair Dismissal Act. At the meeting, the Board heard evidence and arguments concerning the superintendent’s recommendation to terminate the employment contract of a teacher in the district. The meeting was presided over by a hearing officer.
Just as the school district is proud to host student teachers, the district also welcomes the opportunity to serve as a learning environment for students preparing for future careers. For that reason, student journalists with the Communication Arts Department at Georgia Southern University were present for, and recorded, the majority of the meeting.
During the meeting, members of the Board raised concerns about protecting the privacy rights of a minor student who testified at, and was referenced throughout, the meeting. As the district’s counsel was actively participating in the meeting on the superintendent’s behalf, a representative of the district asked the student recording the meeting for permission for the district to hold the media card from the video camera until the student journalist’s faculty advisor and counsel could be consulted. The student journalist who was recording the meeting agreed and willingly provided the media card to the district.
Having now had the opportunity to consult with the faculty advisor and counsel and to discuss with counsel about the competing right to record an open meeting and any privacy rights of the minor student, the district has concluded that audiovisual recording of the meeting was authorized by OCGA 20-2-58(c)(2) and 50-14-1(c). The district has also concluded that no portion of the audiovisual recording of the meeting is protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), as that recording is not “maintained by “ the school district and is thus not a protected “education record” under 20 U.S.C. 1232g(a)(4)(A).
For those reasons, the school district has returned the Georgia Southern students’ media card to them, unaltered, and will take no further action with respect to that recording.”
Let’s break it down one paragraph at a time.
For starters, the people who govern and attend the Board of Education meetings on the part of the school system – the Superintendent, the representatives of the Central Office, the attorney – they’re not new. They know better. Also, the Open Meetings Act is all of 9 ½ pages. Why is no school system personnel equipped with a copy for quick reference? After all, it is the law.
Second, the law on the state level is incredibly clear. It is so clear, that the the specific issue is outlined in its own subsection of the Georgia Open Meetings Act in OCGA 50-14-3(b)(2) (which was not even cited by the school system) because people much wiser and, obviously with much more appreciation for the First Amendment, addressed it more than a decade ago.
“This exception (referring to executive sessions and closed meetings) shall not apply to the receipt of evidence or when hearing arguments on personnel matters, including whether to impose disciplinary action or dismiss a public officer or employee or when considering or discussing matters of policy regarding the employment or hiring practices of the agency.”
In the prepared statement said ‘members of the Board raised concerns’ about protecting privacy of the minor referenced throughout the meeting. Board members are required by law to attend training put on by the state and the Georgia School Boards Association and they cover – at length – provisions of the Open Meetings Act. The concerns should have been quelled by the training they’re obligated to take, so this appears to be a cop out of the low hanging fruit variety, probably in hopes that no one will know these school board members are taught and taught and taught again about all of these laws.
Additionally, the school board, like many courts do when referencing juveniles, could have elected to reference the juvenile by his/her initials. It takes a little extra work, but if that was really the concern by Board members, it could have been accommodated.
The district’s counsel – Bruce, Matthews, and LaVoie – may have been ‘actively participating’ in the hearing, but if board members were interrupting the hearing to voice concerns about student privacy, it seems like the attorney could have interrupted his duties to set the record straight on the law…if said attorney is familiar with it. If the attorney is not, perhaps it is time for a new attorney. Again, the Open Meetings Act is a basic pillar of conducting open meetings and has been law – exactly as it is currently – for more than a decade.
And to state the obvious: this never would have happened if the journalist wasn’t a student. You’ll never convince me that a representative would have approached Dal Cannady from WTOC or a journalist from WSAV, the Statesboro Herald, or myself and asked for our devices. Had they, I can say, at least for myself, I would have laughed in their face.
The response from the school system is shameful and is absent of the most important element: “We’re sorry and we won’t do it again.” The suggestion that they’re doing the student a favor by returning the student’s property and ‘not taking any further action’ wreaks of shirking accountability and, worse, the seriousness of their missteps.
It’s abhorrent. The First Amendment is the First Amendment for a reason. It also makes no distinction between ‘credentialed’ and uncredentialed media. Sure, that’s fine for sporting events or other things at private events, but when it comes to holding government accountable, there is no delineation. The People are the Press and the Press are the People. If you wanted to dress up like a unicorn, wear stilts, and sport a GoPro on your head while calling yourself ‘a journalist,’ you may. More importantly, you are afforded the same rights and protections under the law as the guy
After all, the Bill of Rights was not a document that gave the citizens rights and privileges. They’re protected rights that restrict the government from taking certain actions against The People.
On that note, should we audit how the Bulloch County School System is implementing the curriculum on the Bill of Rights? Because I am concerned.