ACLU sues city schools, but local officials say they don't know why

ACLU sues city schools, but local officials say they don't know why

PAWTUCKET - The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island last week asked a court to impose fines against the Pawtucket School District for failing to respond to an open records request the ACLU submitted last October.

The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court by volunteer attorney Karen Davidson, charges that the district unlawfully failed to respond to two requests from the ACLU for public documents. It is the second time in two years the ACLU has sued Pawtucket schools for ignoring the open records law, according to a news release from the organization.

Last October, the ACLU filed an Access to Public Records Act request with every school district in the state, seeking documents about their implementation of the state's new "high stakes testing" graduation requirement, and specifically, the Pawtucket district's process for allowing the requirement to be waived for certain students. A waiver process is required by Rhode Island Department of Education regulations.

When Pawtucket did not respond to the request, the ACLU sent a follow-up letter, but again received no response, prompting a lawsuit, according to a news release from the ACLU. The suit contends that the district's failure to provide the records is a clear violation of APRA, and seeks a court order requiring the district to turn over the requested documents, imposition of a fine for violating the law, and an award of attorneys' fees.

Pawtucket School Supt. Deborah Cylke told The Breeze Monday that "the facts as I know them" are that Patti DiCenso, secondary school performance officer for the district, gave ACLU officials "exactly the information they asked for" in prompt fashion following their October request.

"We're not sure why they don't have it," she said, adding that the lawsuit "is unfortunate."

Cylke said she was under the impression that ACLU officials were seeking information to build a case that the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) test is an "unfair hurdle" for some students to get a diploma, specifically those who don't score a "2" or higher.

Cylke said local school officials informed the ACLU that local waiver policies, once fully developed, would mirror those set forth by the Rhode Island Department of Education. Local education officials have put numerous policies in place to identify and help students who could use assistance, and informed the ACLU of what they were doing, said Cylke.

Davidson emphasized again Tuesday that Pawtucket school officials sent them none of the information they were asking for, and failed to respond to multiple follow-up requests.

"They never bothered to email or call," she said.

Davidson said her guess is that someone prepared the information requested, but it never got reviewed or sent out.

Pawtucket school officials have been "less than responsive" in the ACLU's dealings with them, said Davidson.

"They're the only ones we have problems with," she said.

Pawtucket School Committee Chairman Alan Tenreiro said Sunday that the committee would be discussing the lawsuit behind closed doors.

According to the release from the ACLU, the organization received responses from every other school district in the state except Pawtucket, though some indicated that they were still in the process of developing a waiver policy. In March 2012, Pawtucket was one of only two school districts that was sued by the ACLU for failing to respond to another open records request, that one seeking policies relating to school resource officers. Shortly after that suit was filed, Pawtucket provided the documents and the ACLU agreed to drop the lawsuit without seeking penalties.

"Pawtucket's cavalier failure to respond to open records requests from the ACLU - not once, but twice in two years - is inexcusable," said Davidson in a statement last week. "We have been forced to take action because we can't let requests for necessary information be ignored like this. I am hopeful that the court will hold the school district fully accountable." Brown said in a statement that the organization has the ability to take actions few individuals can.

"The ACLU has the resources to sue public bodies for violations of the open records law when our requests are disregarded," he said. "Most residents do not have that ability, and that is why it is important to hold public bodies responsible when they refuse to take their obligations under this law seriously."