A Northern California school district’s commitment to unlawful secrecy cost it an estimated $300,000 in attorney’s fees—most of it paid to two different law firms to unsuccessfully defend against a parent’s lawsuit to obtain access to his son’s pupil records, the parent says.
Almost two years ago, Mike Harris asked the Roseville Joint Union High School District to show him records in connection with his son's expulsion from the basketball team for having created a satirical video—off campus and on his own time—about adolescent drug use in the affluent Granite Bay community, and posting it on Youtube. The district showed him some, but not all the requested records.
“They gave me what they said were my son's complete official record but what they gave me was nowhere near the complete record. They claimed the electronic records and emails that they maintain and use on a daily basis were not official records and that they did not have to give them to me. They were wrong,” Harris says.
When Harris’ efforts to persuade the school to let him see more of his son’s pupil records failed, he hired Paul Nicholas Boylan, an attorney specializing in records access law, to file a lawsuit to help him gain access to the withheld information.
Last January Boylan commenced the court action arguing that the California Constitution, Education Code and Public Records Act gave Harris the right to view his son’s records and that the school district violated Harris’ rights as a parent when they decided to them secret.
The district hired Trujillo & Vinson, a San Francisco Bay Area law firm, to defend against Harris’ lawsuit.
“The District’s defense was vigorous,” Boylan says. “They did everything they could to prevent Mike from seeing records that any parent should be allowed to see. But in the end the court decided to defend not just Mike’s rights, but all parents' rights to see their children’s school records.”
On May 20, Placer County Superior Court Commissioner Margret Wells entered judgment holding that the district violated Harris’ rights and ordered the district to provide Harris with access to a complete copy of his son’s records, including emails and other electronic records.
“It was a huge victory,” Harris says.
But the dispute wasn’t over. As the winning party, Harris asked the court to order the district to pay his attorney’s fees and court costs.
“That’s when things got really nasty,” Boylan says. “As hard as the district fought to avoid letting Mike see his son’s records, they fought even harder to avoid reimbursing Mike for what it cost him to enforce his rights.”
When Harris filed his request for reimbursement, the district hired a second law firm, Meyers & Nave, a large law firm with offices in six cities, to work with Trujillo & Vinson to oppose the claim. However, right before the hearing on Harris’ motion, the case settled when the district agreed to pay Harris’ attorney’s fees and court costs.
“During the lawsuit, I asked to see the district’s attorney bills so I could keep track of how much the district was spending,” Harris says. “I estimate the district paid around $300,000 total to their lawyers and my attorney to keep me from seeing my son’s records.”
“This is not just a question of them trying to violate my rights,” Harris adds. “This is a question of how much money was wasted in the attempt. $300,000 is a huge amount of money, especially now in hard economic times when so many teachers are losing their jobs and so many school programs are being cut. The $300,000 should have been used to pay for teachers, books, or other costs related to educating our students, not a misguided and irresponsible attempt to deny me my rights as a parent.
"It makes absolutely no sense to spend so much money that way. It would never happen if they had to spend their own money—but apparently they operate using different standards when they spend the taxpayers' money.”
As part of the settlement, the district has agreed to let Harris meet with the district board of trustees.
“Over the past two years I have often wondered who was in charge and if they would be held responsible for wasting our taxpayer dollars," Harris said. "I am certain the Board of Trustees does not know the real story of what happened in my case. They should know so that this does not happen to anyone else. We can't afford it.”