UNION — The Union County School District and Superintendent Dr. Kristi Woodall released a statement Thursday afternoon to address the school board’s policy on an individual’s right to address the Union County School Board.
The statement comes after Monday night’s Union County Board of School Trustees meeting during which Jessica Sherbert held a press conference after she was asked to address the board in executive session. Sherbert told the board that while it met in executive session, she would be holding a press conference in the hallway, discussing her concerns.
Here is the statement issued by the Union County School District and Woodall:
“As a result of recent controversy concerning an individual’s right to address the Union County School Board, I feel it is necessary to offer an explanation to the public. The privilege to address the school board or any other public body remains intact. There are, however, some circumstances where a certain protocol must be followed. Such was the case during a recent meeting of the Union County School Board.
“First and foremost, the primary concern of the Board, administration, staff, and faculty is the children. We hold sacred our responsibility to protect the students from harm and exploitation in accordance with the law and our moral obligation.
“In the present situation, it was determined that the individual wishing to address the Board wanted to do so in public session to discuss a discipline matter concerning a student relative who is not part of her immediate family. As shared with this individual, discussing student discipline matters openly with the public violates the law and opens the school district to possible legal action. There simply are no circumstances where a student’s records, activities, and discipline history, even if related to extracurricular events, will be discussed publicly other than with the written permission of the legally responsible parent or guardian.
“In fact, it should be noted that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which sets forth the reasons that public bodies may meet in executive session, specifically states that the discussion of student discipline matters may properly occur in executive session. Likewise, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prohibits the release or discussion of personally identifiable information about students, including discipline matters, without prior written permission from a parent or guardian. Violations of FERPA may result in monetary fines and other civil penalties.
“While the person in question clearly believes that valid points need to be made to the Board, we could not allow her to do so in open session due to the very real possibility of her identifying personnel and other students, all of whom have privacy rights and could be harmed by the release of personal information. Again, our first responsibility, legally and morally, is to the welfare of our students.
“Furthermore, the Board offered the individual the option of sharing her concerns in executive session, where all comments must be held in confidence, thereby avoiding any privacy issues. The individual declined this offer despite the Board’s ongoing willingness to listen and respond to her concerns.
“In the present matter, the Board has followed protocol and stands behind the legal and moral obligation to place our students’ welfare first. The Board reaffirms its support of and commitment to the policy of opening its meetings to the public and encourages input from all citizens in accordance with the law. The Board and administration regret that there have been apparent misunderstandings and tension in the present situation, and the Board confirms that it is ready, willing, and able to meet with this citizen in executive session to discuss her concerns.”
Sherbert had been on the agenda to address the board during its Nov. 26 meeting regarding what she called inconsistent district policies. When it was suggested that she address the board in executive session in case she mentioned names or titles, members of the media objected, stating that district policies are not a subject allowed for executive session by law.
Board members, however, said they’d been advised to discuss matters in executive session involving the naming of specific employees or their job title. Sherbert said she preferred to make her comments in open session, but the board voted 6-2 to table the matter until legal counsel could be present.
On Monday, Sherbert went before the board again and was again asked to speak in executive sessions which she declined to do. She then informed the board that while it met in executive session she would be holding a press conference in the hallway, discussing her concerns.
During the press conference, Sherbert presented a letter to the news media accusing the district of a Title IX violation due to what she said were harsher rules and consequences being applied to an all-female athletic group than to their male counterparts. Her letter also stated that such discrimination falls under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
Following the conference, no one from the school district could respond to Sherbert’s comments as no one from the district had heard them or read the letter Sherbert gave to members of the media.