Should video be public? We want access in 2016 case after student lost leg after struggle
The video showing the classroom confrontation that allegedly resulted in a Muscogee County School District student having his right leg amputated three years ago must be released, a Columbus judged ruled Thursday.
Muscogee County Superior Court Judge Bobby Peters ruled in favor of the Ledger-Enquirer in the lawsuit filed in January 2018 against MCSD. Peters’ order requires the video to be made available to the L-E within 10 days.
On Sept. 12, 2016, a behavior specialist who was contracted to work in the school district allegedly body-slammed Montravious Thomas five times at an alternative school for students with severe discipline violations.
A month later, after unsuccessful surgeries, the 13-year-old had his right leg amputated below his knee, allegedly due to injuries from the confrontation with Bryant Mosley, according to the $25 million lawsuit Montravious’ mother filed in March 2017.
That lawsuit still is pending in Muscogee County State Court.
Reaction to ruling
Ledger-Enquirer senior editor Sundra Hominik said, “We are pleased with the judge’s decision. The ruling is a victory for all of us who are in favor of open records and government transparency. As our attorney has argued, in a case like this involving the operation of public schools, ‘public interest always trumps privacy.’”
David Hudson represented the L-E in the case. He is the Georgia Press Association’s general counsel and an attorney with the Hull Barrett law firm in Augusta..
“This is a fine open-government victory,” Hudson said via email, “and hats off to the CLE for undertaking the fight in this era of diminished resources to bring cases for access.”
MCSD attorney Greg Ellington, from the Columbus office of the Atlanta-based Hall Booth Smith law firm, told the L-E in an email, “We appreciate that the Court found that ‘sound legal arguments can be propounded for both sides’ on this issue. We also appreciate the Court’s comments regarding the extent to which the incident depicted on the video has already been publicized, including through the filing of a lawsuit by the student and that in such context, the public has a valid interest to know the facts surrounding the issue.
“We remain confident that the School District took every appropriate measure to correctly protect the privacy interests of the student until such time as the Court, weighing all the facts and circumstances, decided that any privacy interest was outweighed by the public’s right to know.”
The Thomas family’s attorney, Renee Tucker of the Atlanta-based law firm Forrest B. Johnson & Associates, declined to comment. Mosley’s attorney wasn’t reached for comment before this story’s deadline.
Surveillance video showing Mosley carrying Montravious out of the school and to the bus was leaked to the website AllOnGeorgia, but the surveillance video that recorded their confrontation in the classroom hasn’t been publicly disclosed.
Under the Georgia Open Records Act, the L-E asked the school district for the video in October 2016. MCSD refused to release it, saying that would be an invasion of the student’s personal privacy according to state law, and that the video is an educational record protected from disclosure under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly called FERPA.
Intended to guard student privacy, FERPA says schools may lose federal funding if they have “a policy or practice of releasing education records to unauthorized persons.”
The district has said it would release the footage if Montravious’ family agreed to its disclosure, but the family has refused to waive any privacy rights.
After negotiations over the video’s release failed to resolve the issue, the newspaper filed suit on Jan. 4, 2018. The case initially was assigned to Judge Arthur Smith III, but he recused himself, and it was reassigned to Peters.
Among the reasons for his decision, in addition to citing rulings from other courts, Peters wrote in his 12-page final order:
▪ “The video depicts just one student, Mr. Thomas, totally void of any personal information on Mr. Thomas, except his identity, which has already been well publicized, even by his family and attorney.”
▪ Information depicted in the video already was placed in the “public domain” by the Thomas family’s lawsuit.
▪ The Thomas family hasn’t filed a request to deny the video’s disclosure or to be heard on the issue.
▪ “If a student files a lawsuit against a public body and its representatives requesting damages . . . , the public has a valid public interest to know the facts surrounding the issue of excessive force which is already in the public domain.”
▪ “The School District’s own documents show that video recordings are not education records. . . . The videos are for safety and security, and they are not stored and maintained as required for ‘education records.’”
▪ “Even the U.S. Department of Education advises that video tapes are not FERPA education records.”
▪ State law requires disclosure decisions to be “construed presumptively in favor of open records and that exemptions are to be narrowly construed.”
▪ Case law has established “that there is no individual right of privacy when the subject matter under consideration is one of public interest or in this case the information is already in the public domain.”
▪ “A physical confrontation between a teenage student and an adult contracting with the School District is a matter of public interest and concern.”
▪ “Even had there been no litigation filed, such an occurrence in the public school system is a matter that generates legitimate interest and concern among parents, students, other educators and the County’s taxpayers.”
Staff writer Tim Chitwood contributed to this story.