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D.C. Coalition Asks Government for Secret List of Six Schools Where Sexual Abuses by Employees Took Place

Fritz Mulhauser | August 24, 2019 | Last modified: March 19, 2020

Update 3/17/20: Office of the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education said they had no record showing the school names we requested. Seems implausible, as DME Kihn discussed the topic at length in emails with the community. But we’ll leave that for another day. We refiled the same request to D.C. Public Schools. They claimed our request was confusing and they probably had no records, but on appeal were ordered to discuss further with us and get on with it. We clarified and then got a second denial, based on a mayor’s order that sexual harassment case files are confidential. We believe FOIA law governs requests like ours, especially where the public interest is strong and there is no individual privacy interest in the name of a school. The Coalition’s second appeal remains pending since January.

D.C. school officials declined this week to release a list of six schools that each had a substantiated claim of sexual abuse by an employee since January 2018. On Friday (23), the Open Government Coalition filed a formal request under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act for the school names.

Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn in an email to earlier requesters August 20 acknowledged that the six “school communities” know the facts. Indeed, it’s policy to inform them of such situations as they occur.

But he rejected any further public listing of the schools. He cited possible risks to past victims or chilling of future victims’ willingness to come forward. And he saw no “compelling argument” or “additional benefits” such as “how this list will help keep students safe.”

The Coalition request made two key points:

  • the Freedom of Information Act governs public access to records in the District, not ad hoc judgment calls of individual officials using a personal risk-benefit calculus; and
  • the Act and its federal counterpart, as interpreted by the courts, require that records with information that is already public may not be withheld.

The government has already told hundreds of students, staff and parents at each of the six schools about a substantiated complaint there. It cannot now unring that bell.

The schools’ names did not reach the public by leak or accident, but by official acknowledgement. The Coalition noted this is one of the clearest situations where courts have held that prior disclosure of the specific information requested waives any later claim of exemption.

The Coalition has won victories against official secrecy before, for example:

  • when D.C. Council members refused access to emails on official business sent on private accounts;
  • when the mayor’s cross-sector education task force planned two years of secret meetings; and
  • when the United Medical Center board members met behind closed doors to end vital health services east of the river.

The District has not immediately responded; the law allows 15 work days (until September 16) for reply. The Coalition appeals denials to the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel or files suit in court.

Next up, when charter schools say their records and board meetings should be private. (Stay tuned for more on this at a Council hearing October 2.)