Schools must give details of ‘bad’ news, too

Red Wing Republican Eagle

A 14-year-old places first in a school competition. It’s a good bet we’ll get a call from the teacher, principal and child’s family encouraging us to publicize the event.

Another 14-year-old is expelled for bringing a look-alike weapon to school and threatening students. In this instance, we’ll be fortunate if any information is volunteered beyond the youth’s grade level.

The unwillingness of school officials to share – with equal excitement – “good” and “bad” news is not surprising. We face similar roadblocks in pursuit of all news, no matter the venue – whether it’s City Hall, law enforcement or a private business.

But a recent advisory opinion issued by the state commissioner of administration underscores school officials’ responsibility to better inform the public about student discipline.

The issue is of rising importance since school districts across the state – including Red Wing – have adopted increasingly severe policies in recent years with regard to student possession of weapons and drugs.

Stillwater case
The opinion was in reference to a case at Stillwater School District. The Stillwater Gazette newspaper sought the opinion, prompted by the expulsion of two students earlier this year.

In routine fashion, the newspaper asked for the age, grade level, sex, hometown and race of each student, as well as information on the specific act that led to the expulsion. School officials provided only the grade level and a statement that “both students violated the District 834 Discipline Policy regarding possession, use or intent to sell dangerous drugs/controlled substances on school property.”

The district said additional detail would violate state and federal laws.

The Gazette argued that much more information should be disclosed under the provision of “summary data” in the state’s Data Practices Act.

Protecting identities
State laws are intended to protect the identity of a youth, and in that regard the commissioner of administration respected the district’s position that providing the sex, hometown and race could violate that privacy.

But the commissioner also determined that it wasn’t clear why releasing the youths’ ages would identify them. Furthermore, the commissioner found fault with the district’s vague description of the acts that led to the expulsion.

The commissioner wrote, “If a report exists that provides more explicit detail about the act that each of the students committed, the district is obligated to provide the information after having removed all personal identifiers.”

The opinion should be welcomed by all community residents. The well-being of students in schools should be a concern of all. Anyone should have the ability to find out the circumstances that led to student discipline rather than having officials simply recite a nondescript policy.

Broader message
But there’s an broader message in this opinion for whomever may be the purveyor of “bad” news. It’s far better for the source – the person in the know – to deliver an accurate message and set the facts straight, rather than let rumors swirl through a community.

Education represents a large part of the R-E coverage on a daily basis, and justifiably so. What happens in the classroom and all the affiliated school activities are part of the community fabric.

In the big picture, articles on the positive things happening in the schools far outweigh the negative stories. But the community still is entitled to a full report of school news – the good as well as the bad.