(The Center Square) – A Fairfax County judge ruled in favor of parents who published information they received from Fairfax County Public Schools after the school division sought to prevent some information from being public.
Two parents, Debra Tisler and Callie Oettinger, published information about school spending and other activities, which the school division handed over to them in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. However, the school division forgot to redact some information that was exempt from the FOIA requirements, including personal student and employee information. The board offered the parents a redacted version of the information, but the parents refused to give back the original copies the school division requested.
Although the board has alleged they want the parents to return the original documents to prevent personal information from being leaked, the parents have argued they did not print files that divulge personal information, but did publish a lot of other information the school division wanted redacted.
Judge Richard Gardiner mostly sided with the parents by refusing to fully grant the school division a preliminary injunction. The judge that the parents cannot publish information that relates to bank account names and numbers and tax ID and federal ID information. Everything else, the judge ruled, can be published.
During a hearing, Gardiner said the parents received the information legally, even if the board did not intend to provide it to them. He said the board, maybe due to ineptness, still provided them with the documents.
“[The school division] made the decision to turn over the information, and they're stuck with that,” Gardiner said. “And I don't believe there's any harm to them other than disclosure of a tiny, tiny percentage of the information which relates to bank account names and numbers and tax ID and federal ID information.”
Oettinger, one of the parents in the lawsuit, told The Center Square the school division is trying to suppress the parents’ First Amendment rights.
"FCPS has a long history of being found in noncompliance with state and federal regulations, so it came as no surprise that FCPS thought it could strip us of our First Amendment rights,” Oettinger said. “Prevailing in court was a win for the First Amendment and for education advocates. I hope it is a wake up call for FCPS leadership. Learning should trump litigation. They must clean house, provide children the free appropriate public education to which they have a right, provide teachers appropriate and ongoing continuing education and other supports to ensure they have what they need to do their jobs and help our kids, and stop breaching the privacy of students and staff."
A spokesperson told The Center Square the school division was surprised with the ruling.
“FCPS does not support the deliberate and intentional sharing of sensitive student or employee information,” a spokesperson said. “FCPS will continue its commitment to protect sensitive information. We are surprised and concerned by the ruling. We are reviewing it and evaluating our next steps."
The judge’s ruling on the injunction does not complete the legal process. The court will still need to rule on the merits of the case.