Court sides with ACLU in DPS information request case

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

The Michigan Court of Appeals has sided with an American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan employee regarding his request for information from Detroit Public Schools about student disciplinary matters.

The ruling issued Tuesday overturns a Wayne County Circuit Court decision in the Freedom of Information Act case involving Rodd Monts, a field director for the ACLU, and the school district. Two of the three-judge panel ruled in favor of Monts.

Monts said Wednesday the information he eventually obtained was used for a report released early last year entitled: For Naught: How Zero Tolerance Policy and School Police Practices Imperil Our Students’ Future.

“My request was a simple one,” he said. “I was looking to create a snapshot of school-based arrests. We wanted to look at the impact of police in schools and find out what the situation was with law enforcement in Detroit schools. My initial thought was they have an organized police department. There should be some record keeping.”

According to the opinion, Monts filed the suit in August 2013 after the district claimed they could not provide him “the total number of student discipline matters that have been referred to” the district’s police department or the Detroit Police Department. The district had said it could not fulfill the request “as the District does not ‘refer’ disciplinary matters to the police.”

Monts contended that as the district provided him with some of the records he sought in the FOIA request, some of those documents included forms containing data the district claimed it didn’t have. Among the information Monts requested was the number of students that were suspended or expelled during the past three academic years, the number of discipline matters that were referred to police and the district’s policies and procedures for school suspensions and expulsions.

At issue was a form titled “Undesirable Incident Report” that includes a check box for police involvement by in-school or precinct officers. The ACLU requested that the district’s denial of police referral data be reversed because the information was in the incident report and elsewhere, according to the opinion.

The opinion also states that the school district was nearly two months late in its response to Monts, who said he had to prod the district.

The circuit court sided with the district saying that Monts’ request was not clear, according to the opinion. It ruled that the information the district did eventually provide “wasn’t necessarily responsive” to Monts’ request therefore the court couldn’t side with Monts. He appealed the case.

While two of the three judges sided with Monts on Tuesday, the lone dissenting, Judge Amy Ronayne Krause, said that there is no way that the district could have guessed that handing over its “retained forms” would have satisfied his request “nor should it have been expected to do so.”

“The evidence indicates that defendant simply does not keep the kinds of correlative records plaintiff specifically and explicitly requested,” she wrote.

Detroit Public Schools did not immediately respond to questions regarding the case.

Monts hopes the ruling Tuesday is the last chapter in the case.

“This has been a time-consuming and expensive fight,” he said. “I think the district’s resources could be better directed than has been the case with this litigation.”

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