FORT COLLINS, Colo. - A criminal complaint has been filed against the Poudre School District for willfully destroying public records, denying them to the family of a special needs student.
At a recent school board meeting, PSD Superintendent Sandra Smyser refused to talk about the district's records policy with CALL7 Investigator John Ferrugia.
"I have no comment," Smyser said.
Smyser took the job as Poudre's superintendent last year, and was not the district's superintendent when employees engaged in an organized effort to destroy records in 2010 and 2011. She will not discuss the current records policy, or whether the district acted properly in response.
"Do you think it's ethical for the school district to destroy records to keep them away from families? From individuals?" Ferrugia asked.
Smyser did not answer.
Student records destroyed
In March 2011, Ephraim Starr filed a request with the district under the Colorado Open Records Act, requesting his son Isaac's education records, including emails between staff members. He said the Individualized Education Plan the district had provided for Isaac -- who has several disabilities, including autism -- was insufficient. Starr found emails dating back four months before his request in which PSD employees discussed destroying records about his son and his family.
In a December 9, 2010 email, Sarah Belleau, the director of PSD's Integrated Services special education program, instructs her Special Education Coordinator:
"Please delete this e-mail when done…
Please ask all involved staff to delete AND destroy any e-mail or paper records related to this family. When they delete the e-mail, they need to then "empty the trash" Please have them do this immediately. All other records with the exception of the latest plan should be destroyed -- shred. The reason is to protect against an Open Records Request.
Thank you for doing this and for verbally communicating this with staff. I do not want this put in writing.
Then in March, less than an hour after Starr's first email requesting records, Belleau sent another email to district staff:
I just want to remind you that deleting any unnecessary e-mails and then "emptying the deleted folder" is an important step to take.
Then eight minutes after that:
"Please remember to delete your sent mail as well."
Joe Horky, the principal at Bacon Elementary, where Isaac attended school, was apparently also part of the conspiracy. In a March 23, 2011 email -- just days after Starr's requests -- Horky tells staff members:
"Delete your message!"
"Delete your deleted!"
"Delete your sent!"
Other emails between Poudre School District employees refer to the Starrs as "crazy people" and read, "Just put it in your I.S. [Isaac Starr] file and strap on your waders!" and "Bring it on!!"
Ferrugia asked Poudre School Board President Thomas Balchak whether he thought it was ethical for PSD staff members to destroy records in an effort to keep them from a student's parents.
"I'm going to not make any additional comments on that," Balchak said.
The school district spent more than $200,000 in an open records lawsuit brought by the Starrs in 2011, including $122,577.74 to the Starrs for their attorney fees.
"Do you think that's taxpayer money well spent?" Ferrugia asked Balchak.
"I told you I'm not going to give any additional response at this time, but thank you for your interest," Balchack responded.
"Do you think it's ethical, and as Board President, do you condone people in this district on a staff making disparaging remarks about people in emails, calling them names, is that what this district is about?" Ferrugia asked.
"I think if you look at the district response it was indicated that that was inappropriate and that disciplinary action was taken along those lines," Balchak responded.
But what the district's written statement does not say, is who was disciplined or how. Despite her conduct, Sarah Belleau is still Director of Integrated Services.
Meanwhile, a criminal complaint recently filed in Fort Collins alleges PSD was legally obligated to preserve the records it destroyed, because it anticipated legal action by the Starrs. Fort Collins police are currently investigating.