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Friday, September 21 News

New preliminary ruling in FOI case for school board

DARIEN — Darien’s Board of Education erred in withholding records in regards to the suspension of high school football coach, according to a preliminary ruling by the state’s Freedom of Information Commission.

The preliminary ruling comes as a result of a series of FOIA requests by Jay Hardison, a Darien resident, who was seeking documents relating to the suspension and investigation of Darien High football coach Rob Trifone.

“I think the hearing officer got this absolutely right,” said Hardison.

While he agreed with the ruling, Hardison said it was important to emphasize it was only preliminary.

“The board will adhere to the commission’s ruling as we always have and always will,” said Tara Ochman, the Board of Education chairman after the release of the ruling, July 2.

The preliminary ruling is that the school should not have withheld certain records because they dealt with district actions, not an individual student as the board claimed.

“From the start, the school has been concerned that it respects the FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act) rights of parents,” said Ochman in the statement.

The hearing officer disagreed with some of the good faith judgments that school personnel made out of concern for the privacy rights of the student, said Ochman.

The board will be appearing at the Freedom of Information (FOI) Commission meeting to voice their concern that the hearing officer’s decision was in part incorrect, she said in the statement.

“However, we respect the work of the commission and acknowledge that it can be difficult to draw lines as to what records are FERPA protected when a parent complains on behalf of his or her children,” said Ochman in the statement.

This preliminary ruling stemmed from the suspension of Trifone after an in-game incident where he allegedly slapped a helmeted player in the head in 2016.

Thomas Hennick, a member of the Freedom of Information Commission, said at the July 25 meeting both parties have an opportunity to agree or disagree with the preliminary ruling.

If either party disagrees with the ruling they can appeal the decision all the way up to the state supreme court, said Hennick.

In this case, the hearing officer appeared to view the records by himself to make the decision, said Hennick.

“He’s recommending there are a couple of records that are not exempt even though the school district think they are,” said Hennick.

When making their decisions the hearing officer takes in information from both sides then files their proposed report, he said.

“The bottom line is, in this case, it’s a records request,” said Henick. “He [Hardison] had asked the school district for a certain number of records.”

Ochman said in her statement that while the board is concerned some records should not be disclosed for privacy reasons they will abide by the decision of the FOI commission.

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Should the parents in question provide a release to disclose the particular records in the interim, or should the FOI commission order these records be released the board is willing to release the records to Hardison, and thereby, the public, she said.

“A fair reading of those records will show that the district personnel have acted appropriately in a challenging situation,” said Ochman.

dj.simmons@hearstmediact.com, 203-842-2568

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