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March 31, 2007

What’s going on at Jasper County Schools?

The happenings at Jasper County Schools are always kept as quiet as possible. Fights, drugs, suspensions, etc. Even SAT and other tests scores are rarely reported in the local paper. While every other school system around reports how their students did on the SAT each year, Jasper County Schools rarely report their scores. Why is this?

Fights, guns at schools, disciplinary actions, teacher firings—all these are reported nightly on the TV and in newspapers when something happens at other schools. Yet, in Jasper County, parents can’t even get answers when there are problems involving their own children. School officials must think that “keeping this quiet” will make the problems go away. All this secrecy creates rampant rumors.

What happened at the Middle School recently seems to be a matter of speculation and rumor. The School System, as usual, is not forthcoming with any details. See www.themonticellonews.com
“Middle School Principal Transferred to Central Office”, Susan Jacobs 22.MAR.07

Sources tell TWG that this last incident was “just the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Supposedly a classroom at the Middle School was left unattended for a day, maybe two, and there was a “disturbance in the classroom” with a child being injured. Again, this is rumor and not an official account of what happened, but the citizens of the county aren’t likely to get any type of official news release. That just doesn’t happen in Jasper County. Citizens wonder what the Principal did that was so significant that she must be escorted off school property in the middle of the day and told that she was no longer the Principal. Yet whatever she did was not so significant that the public should be informed of her “misdeeds”. She wasn’t arrested so we speculate that she did nothing illegal. Now that she has been allowed to serve at the Board of Education, the public must wonder if she did anything wrong at all. Disciplinary policies seem to be at the root of the rumors.

There have been other incidents reported to TWG over the past year. Some minor, but two that are shocking. The first occurred almost a year ago where a child in Middle School was allegedly taken out of class and driven to YDC (Youth Detention Center) in Sandersville by the Campus Police without his parents and/or guardians being told anything about it. This reportedly happened several days after a “drug incident” at the school. When the parents/guardians tried to get answers, the Superintendent apparently did not give any, but did apologize and said it should have never happened. He was going to take care it. Yet there was more that went on, and until the parents/guardians talked with several board members, nothing seemed to be resolved—and that took weeks.

The second incident reportedly occurred just this past December. At the very end of the day, while Middle School students were going to their lockers and leaving for the day, an 11 year old female child was allegedly attacked by a high school male student. Sources report that she was grabbed, dragged down the hall, pushed into a locker face first, and shoved into a drinking fountain. There was no staff supervising in the hall while the students changed class. The child was injured and had to wear a splint on her wrist as well as seek counseling. What was done about it? Nothing! The parents could not get the Resource Officer, the Superintendent, or anyone else to call them back after repeatedly leaving messages. The parents tell TWG that since they couldn’t get anything done by school personnel, they contacted the Sheriff’s Department. The parents kept saying that people need to ask, “Is my child safe? Do you know what is going on in the Schools?”

We may all soon be able to find out more from the School System than we have been able to obtain in the past. The Attorney General has just endorsed a booklet called the “Green Book” which is entitled, “Georgia Public Schools and the Open Records Act: A Citizen’s Guide to Accessing School Records.” See article released by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation below.

You can access the “Green Book” online click here: www.gfaf.org/resources/greenBook.pdf

TWG also urges the School Board to be more open in allowing citizens and parents to speak at the School Board meetings. The Superintendent should never have the last say if a citizen can or can not speak at a Board Meeting. The School Board members are elected and should be happy to hear from the citizens they serve. TWG asks that there be time at every meeting set aside for “Citizen Comments.” The School Board needs to HEAR what is going on so they can do something about it. Since only one Board Member out of 5 has children in school, the board needs some input from someone other than the Superintendent. It appears as if he covers up with his comment, “He is taking care of the situation.” If he does or doesn’t handle the situation properly (or at all) the School Board needs to be AWARE of what the situation is and how it is handled. With a new tool to give them help (the Green Book), the Citizens may also be able to get more information or at least start screaming loud enough until something is finally done.

TWG
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Mission Statement:
** To keep the taxpayers of Jasper County, Georgia informed as to where and
how their tax dollars are being spent.
** To keep the taxpayers abreast of local policies and laws bein
g discussed and enacted.
** We advocate more open government, less government sp
ending, and lower property taxes.
___________________________________________________________

Green Book signals ‘go’ for access to schools
By Tom Bennett—Georgia FOI Access, Winter 2007

Our country got started once we wrote a constitution that worked. It’s elastic, dynamic and growing. The way we change is called “amending” it. The very first amendment gives us freedom of speech and the press. All this is taught to children in the K-12 public schools. Yet school systems flunked a 1999 survey of open government in Georgia, bringing up the rear behind other government agencies.

There are school superintendents, boards and attorneys who think up ways to STOP citizens and reporters from getting public records. It sounds crazy, but it happens all the time.

Attorney General Thurbert Baker and the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, Georgia PTA and Georgia Press Association now have combined to build a tool for confronting this dysfunction of Georgia public life. It is the 32-page booklet with a green cover entitled, “Georgia Public Schools and the Open Records Act: A Citizen’s Guide to Accessing School Records.”

“Public school records lie at the critical intersection of an individual’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know,” Baker writes in the foreword. It is the law, he says, that public-school records “must be made available for public inspection absent a clear legal requirement preventing disclosure or requiring the redaction of certain confidential information.” This is his strongest statement in any of the Hollie Manheimer books about Georgia FOI.

The Green Book highlights public and private information. It also is the clearest road map yet produced for traveling on the privacy-versus-access landscape of the largest state east of the Mississippi River in the 21st Century. Just the table of contents of this booklet alone is a heartbreaker for any denial-minded Georgia school superintendent. Here he and his staff – who are ready to take whatever position he favors, iron obduracy or modern cooperation – can find in two pages the guidelines for how to proceed in FOI.

Here are the boldfaced headings of this table of contents: Overview of Georgia’s Open Records Act; the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA); Inter-relationship between Georgia’s Open Records Act and FERPA; Campus courts; School personnel records; Administration records; the Open Records Act process; and Appendices.

“Public officials really aren’t left much recourse, because they can find everything fast,” said Kathryn Allen of Decatur. She is the retired senior Assistant Attorney General of Georgia and Emory Law graduate who ended her career in the Attorney General’s office in a historic role. She was the first coordinator of A.G. Baker’s Open Government Mediation Program in 2003-05. Before concentrating on open government, she was Georgians’ lawyer before our Supreme Court in a host of cases. In Georgia Hospital Association v. Ledbetter, Allen led the state’s highest court to establish that accreditation records of hospitals, public and private, are open.

Since retiring, Allen has assisted Hollie Manheimer in the editing of this new guide to public school FOI. The venerable practices in Georgia school districts of dogged reliance upon, and very spirited interpretation of, the U.S. Department of Education’s FERPA law will suffer now that the “Green Book” is being distributed around the state. “My personal opinion is that the Family Compliance Office, which enforces FERPA, does it much more broadly than Congress intended,” Allen said. “But we’re kind of stuck with the way they interpret it, because schools don’t want to lose any chances they have of getting their federal money. It also gives schools not happy about turning loose their records an excuse.”

However, the person who served as day-to-day coordinator of open government in the Law Department has strong views about the importance of privacy of certain Georgia school records. “I personally think an individual student’s grades should not be public,” Allen said. The foreword of this new booklet, which she signed off on, also stresses the privacy of “academic performance, medical or financial information and Social Security numbers.” The individual student grades and these other facts are protected. They “must be redacted from the documents prior to disclosure absent the consent of the student or his guardian,” according to the foreword.

If you are prepared to dismiss the “Green Book” as unqualified work of advocacy of openness, think again. Sad but true for pro-openness types, this book’s pages 22-26
define 32 types of “Information exempt from public disclosure.” These range from AIDS/HIV information to confidential records concerning reports to child abuse to
confidential juvenile records to wiretap records.

As in the other Manheimer books, this one also explodes the myth, dear to its legislative authors, that Title 50 of the Georgia Code has all the open government law. If only that were true, but it is not. The exemptions list in the Green Book also names other laws that prevent disclosure and that can be found in Titles 15, 25, 31, 35, 37, 40, 45 and 48. “The reason I like the list of exemptions (in the book) is that we want this to be helpful to the schools,” Allen said. “If it’s a helpful tool for them, they’ll rely on it.” Society’s ills fall to teachers to heal and they band together in a kind of bunker mentality. The legislator or governor who crosses them does so at his or her peril.

“I was a teacher, you know,” Allen recalled. “I know how important teachers’ jobs are. But I also remember how there are people with no other motivation in life except to just make a living, and so they decided to teach school. The ‘bunker mentality’ you refer to produces those bad teachers. For the school system to get rid of them, they have to do something almost morally reprehensible. I don’t know what percentage of teachers are good, or what percentage are bad. I know it is a place where some people come out and try their wings and decide it’s not for them. I was one of them. “I’ve had cases where we took teacher certificates away; my point of view may be a bit tarnished by that. In terms of openness, I think, yes indeed, parents and the general public need to know how teachers are performing. That’s the way to excellence, I’m convinced of that.”

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