Judge orders release of settlement agreement in 'strip search' case that went to Supreme Court

Court rejects district's student privacy argument

ARIZONA — Nearly eight years after the original incident, one legal footnote has been added to a storied case involving 13-year-old Savana Redding, who was strip-searched by school officials looking for drugs.

That ordeal, which made its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Safford Unified School District v. Redding, had its courtroom ending in 2009 with an 8-1 majority finding the school violated the girl’s Fourth Amendment rights. A legal dispute then emerged after the school district refused to release details of its settlement with Redding to a journalist, claiming it was protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

At the end of August, two years after the Supreme Court made its decision, Judge D. Corey Sanders of the Superior Court of Graham County in Arizona compelled the release of the $250,000 settlement deal in the case Matthew Heller vs. Safford Unified School District.

Heller, the editor of the legal news website On Point News, said he originally sent the public records request — and subsequently went to court — to obtain the details because it involved a settlement with public money, which is of special interest to the public.

“With On Point, one thing we try to do is follow up on settlements in cases involving public agencies,” Heller said. “I think this is something mainstream media is very lax about. They’re very happy to report on a suit being filed, and then they just drop the ball when the case ends in a settlement.

Heller first requested the school district release the settlement Jan. 5, 2010, and the district’s legal counsel David K. Pauole responded with a letter Jan. 20 denying the request because “the U.S. Department of Education has specifically determined that a settlement agreement is an education record under FERPA.”

But that claim had its doubters.

Christopher Moeser, one of Heller’s attorneys in the suit, said the reason did not stand up under scrutiny and the settlement does not qualify as an “educational record.”

The district cited a statement by the Department of Education “that isn’t part of the FERPA regulations,” Moeser said, “it’s not in statute, and doesn’t really squarely address the issue, which is whether the public has the right to inspect a settlement agreement where there is a payment of public funds to resolve a lawsuit stemming from conduct by the district.”

Heller said the district’s rationale for withholding the settlement under FERPA was releasing the details would “infringe on the privacy of Savanna Redding,” he said. “But what was there left that was private about it in this case? It was totally public knowledge.”

Moeser said “there’s case law that says FERPA doesn’t protect information that’s already widely known or disseminated anyway,” and the judge ruled in Heller’s favor for this reason.

Calls to a lawyer for the school district were not returned by press time.

Details of the strip search came up during oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court and can be found in the court’s opinion. Moeser said the details were already heavily publicized, Redding’s identity was not a secret, and she participated in media interviews.

“Really the only fact that was kept from the public was the amount of money paid by the district to settle the lawsuit,” he said. “And frankly once we saw the agreement, that was confirmed — there are no confidential or private details in the resolution.”

With the details of the settlement out, Heller reflected on the time it took for it to emerge and encourages persistence when faced with stonewalling public agencies.

“This should have been something the public knew about two years ago,” Heller said. “I hope it sends a message in some way to school districts and other agencies that they cannot keep doing this and putting confidentially clauses in front of an agreement where they’re spending tax payer money. I hope it also motivates media groups to file these public records act requests when agencies make these things confidential, and if they deny it, then they should nail them to the wall.”

Arizona, news, Safford Unified School District

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