The Coronado Police Department continues to investigate how high school students on May 24 were sent “inappropriate material” on their smartphones from a situation involving a Coronado Unified School District employee.
The Coronado School District, meanwhile, is currently refusing to release public records regarding the case to The Coronado News, citing privacy concerns.
The Coronado News earlier this month filed public records requests with the police and school district seeking any and all documents related to the case as no additional public announcements have been shared with the community regarding the situation.
Students and parents previously told The Coronado News that pictures, videos and screenshots of a shirtless male who resembled an administrator at the high school were circulated among students and copies were placed on bathroom walls.
It remains unclear how the photos were sent to the students, and some students believe the pictures reached Coronado Middle School students as well.
Free speech expert: Right to know
That same week, the district notified parents in a statement that a Coronado High School employee was placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation. The district statement also read that the investigation, in cooperation with the Coronado Police Department, did not involve any student in the district.
The identity of the Coronado High School employee involved in the case has not been disclosed by police or the district.
A first amendment expert said in an interview that a public school district is obliged to full transparency and the public has the right to know about any substantial issues of potential misconduct — particularly from persons who occupy positions of trust or authority.
The Coronado Police Department, in response to the newspaper’s request, said on July 11 that the investigation is ongoing and released only a brief police report that showed an incident had occurred at the high school in late May.
District: Records would invade privacy
The district on July 14 told the newspaper that it considers not releasing any records outweighs disclosure because the case is ongoing.
Further, the district said it objected to releasing documents because it would constitute invasion of personal privacy involving complaints or investigations against public employees.
Additionally, the district said it was prohibited from sharing, identifiable confidential documents and information it considered related to a pupil or pupils that would require parental consent or judicial order even though the district in May said “the investigation does not involve any CUSD student/s.”
However, while declining to provide public records sought by the newspaper, the district also said it had “non-exempt, non-privileged documents” that it would release in late July to The Coronado News.
Then on July 20, the district sent The Coronado News a clarification stating it had made a mistake and would not be providing any records at all because the district objected to the records request.
The district added: “At some point in the future, it is possible that producible responsive records may exist.”
Meanwhile, the Coronado Police Department on July 11 informed The Coronado News that information about the ongoing investigation remains confidential.
The department response came almost two months following the commencement of the case.
Coronado Police Public Records Specialist Jennifer Reloj confirmed that the investigation remains ongoing.
The confidential nature of police investigative files continues in effect after an investigation is conclude.”-Coronado Police Public Records Specialist Jennifer Reloj
“The confidential nature of police investigative files continues in effect after an investigation is concluded,” read the letter from Reloj.
According to the Computer Aided Dispatch Report page, related to the case obtained from the Coronado Police Department, the agency received notice of suspicious circumstances happening at Coronado High School at 4 p.m. on May 24.
Reloj added that only information related to an arrest following an investigation may become public information.
Police still seeking assistance
The police department encouraged community members to contact Detective Danielle Adams at email@example.com with any information regarding the investigation.
“We recognize the significance and potential impact this case may have on the community, and we are mobilizing our resources and expertise to conduct a comprehensive investigation,” read the Coronado Police Department online posts in May. “While we recognize the importance of transparency, we must also protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation. We assure you that updates will be provided within the boundaries allowed by the sensitivity of the case.”
First Amendment Coalition Legal Director David Loy, whose nonprofit organization promotes a free press, freedom of expression and the people’s right to know, considers that under the California Public Records Act law enforcement agencies have the right to withhold public records relating to an investigation.
However, he said public school districts do not get to claim exemption for records of criminal investigations.
According to Loy, the California Public Records Act allows agencies to withhold personnel records if the balancing test of public interest for disclosure would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of privacy.”
But Loy said courts generally allow public disclosure of misconduct complaints against ordinary employees.
My issue is what’s the public interest in transparency and disclosure so the public can assess this for themselves.”-First Amendment Coalition Legal Director David Loy
“I take no position on whether there was or was not misconduct, I’m not here to judge the conduct of the person in question,” said Loy. “My issue is what’s the public interest in transparency and disclosure so the public can assess this for themselves.”
Additionally, a private matter shared as public knowledge — in this case a press release or statement notifying parents that a Coronado High School employee was placed on paid administrative leave — suggests the seriousness of the matter and the public’s right to full disclosure, he said.
A public agency, like a public school district, is obliged to full transparency that allows the public to evaluate and decide on the appropriateness of actions taken on an already relevant incident the agency has made publicly known, he said.
And student privacy laws cannot be applied to records of teachers or staff, said Loy.
If records identify students, names and other information can be redacted, he said.
The public has the right to know about any substantial issues of potential misconduct particularly from persons who occupy positions of trust or authority.”-David Loy.
“Perhaps it may be embarrassing to the person in question, but that is not an excuse to withhold documents,” said Loy, the previous legal director of American Civil Liberties Union for San Diego and Imperial Counties. “The public has the right to know about any substantial issues of potential misconduct particularly from persons who occupy positions of trust or authority.”