School district wrongfully overbilling, redacting information on Camp Crystal, experts say (2022)

Andrew Caplan|The Gainesville Sun

Legal experts say theAlachua County school district is running afoul of Florida’s public record law by overbilling, redacting too much and shielding names in documents requested by The Gainesville Sun.

In response to a request made by the newspaper in May regarding concerns at Camp Crystal,the district argues that first names and nicknamesmentioned in texts, emails and applications are exempt from public disclosure because that person may have ties to law enforcement ora child in an after-school/summer recreational program.

Though the district acknowledged it doesn’t actually know whether all those people are exempt, they redacted names anyway out of precaution,including names of school principals and job candidates.

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A portion of the records received also appear to cover up some city names, YouTube links, and references to the band Sister Hazel. They alsoreveal an unnamed staff member who was terminated from the camp after being accused of sexual assault.

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Clay Calvert, director of the University of Florida’s Brechner First Amendment Project, said some of the redactions“far exceed any boundary possibly conceivable” of a statute the district may be citing.

“Overreadating by government officials is a very common and disturbing practice. That, unfortunately, is not unusual," he said."They will take advantage of any statute there is to try and shield the public from knowing truthful information. They will often err on the side of secrecy and obfuscation rather than openness and transparency.”

Camp Crystal records sought by Gainesville Sun

The request was made by the newspaper in an effort to look intothe district’s Camp Crystal Lake program.

In April, Alachua County Public Schools released an investigation report regarding its director Scott Burton for questionable decisions that include financial activity and offering summer scholarships or awards to well-connected parents who didn’t meet the low-income threshold.

The Sun requested texts and emails between Burton and district Special Projects Manager Prescott Cowles, now acandidate for school board, as well as a list of parents who received the awards to attend the camp, some of whom got free access.

District officials argue that names of parents who had studentsattend camp are exempt from public disclosure, citing a statute that says locating or identifying children in a government-sponsored recreational programis forbidden. One of the family recipients has beenidentified as former Superintendent Karen Clarke in the district'sinvestigation of the camp, a finding that was made public in the report.

The statute cited covers, after-school programs, athletics, and summer camps.

But by the district's own admission, they are unsure whomentioned in the communication chains are exempt.

“The text chain included a lot of first names,” District attorney Francine Turney said in an email. “It was not clear whether they were exempted or not because we don't know who the individuals are. They could be staff, they could be underage (counselor in training) CITs/volunteers, they could have extra exemptions like a law enforcement relation exemption. To find out, that will take additional time."

The statute also says nothing of shielding the names of volunteers, staff, job candidates or principals, who are already publicly named on documents and websites throughout the district.

Moreover,Camp Crystal’s public Instagram account has already identifiedhundreds of staff, volunteers and children attending the summer program. With more than 300 public posts, scores of attendees are shown having fun at the camp with friends. Some pictures go further by identifying the session students attended and which cabin they stayed in. Comments include tags to student accounts.

District spokeswoman Jackie Johnson said pictures are allowed for promotion because students sign waivers, yet reiterated that officials have no easy way of determining who was exempt. It's unclear whether every student tagged or pictured signed a waiver.

“As Ms. Turney shared, names were redacted if it couldn't be confirmed that the person's name is public record under Florida law,” Johnson wrote in an email. “For example, in many cases only first names or nicknames were used in the texts. The public records staff would have had to spend more time (resulting in higher costs) to determine who those people are and if their names are exempt. That includes students but also employees or other adults who may be exempt under Florida law--for example, spouses of law enforcement.”

But state law doesn’t shield the names of spouses of law enforcement from being released, especially if they are public employees, saidSchool Board member Tina Certain, who is married to a now-retired enforcement officer.

Certain said her namehas never been kept from public record, only her address for safety reasons.

Tom Hall, a board of trustees member for the First Amendment Foundation, said there is adifference betweenexempted and confidential information. Hall said the law is written in a way that allows the district toprovide exempt information if they wanted to, similar to how law enforcement investigations work.

But, he added,the district mustknow whether someone is shielded from public records before redacting the information.

"If the school system can't identify these students, it's clear they wouldn't be identifiable by us or by the public. Moreover, the district has never been shy about sharing students' names and photos when it suits their interests," said Douglas Ray, managing editor of The Sun. "They were happy to provide the name and photo of every graduating senior."

Costs for information

The district charged the Sun $218.90 for the records, which was paid in full. A breakdown shows the newspaper was billed for 7 hours and 53 minutes for time to pull, review and redact approximately 1,000 pages of information.

But information received was only gathered by Cowles, who provided his own records.

Turney said Burton had accidentally deleted all his texts and that the district didn’t have the ability to remotely pull any of his records from either of his two cell phones, one of which was a private line he purchased within a week of learning that his texts were considered public records.

“Mr. Burton's camp phone was set to only retain texts for 30 days,” Turney wrote in an email. “… Mr. Burton does have a personal phone, but it is a new line this year and he has not texted with Mr. Cowles at all on that phone. I had Mr. Burton update his settings to retain texts 'forever'but he was not aware of that setting previously.”

Moreover, the officials cited 15 seconds to review per page, but only supplied 250 pages, a portion of which was not asked for. In order to receive the rest of the texts and emails, officials said the Sun would need to pay more so staff could spend more time redacting information.

By Alachua County Public Schools’ own estimates, reviewal of records calculate to about 1 hour and 4 minutes, well shy of the near 8-hour quote. The overages include additional hours billed to the newspaper for staff time, even though Cowles pulled his own communications, a process that should take less than an hour.

What the records show

Previously, there had been no cap on the number of free camp awards that were given out, and they were at Burton’s discretion. The district has historically provided names of students who win awards,scholarships and are in after-school programs.

Burton, who lives on campgrounds with his family, said he plans to resign from his role in the coming weeks. In one text exchange, he appeared to have no idea that he gave out nearly double the number of scholarships to families he had thought, some of whom were repeat attendees.

Though much of what was provided was back-and-forth conversations about work-related issues, Burton also instructedCowles not to use a procurement card due to someone's fear of an audit. Instead, counselors sometimes used Venmo to move funds aroundto avoid keeping readily an available record of purchases.

The camp wasclosed due to a mass COVID-19 outbreak among students and staff in late June-early July. The camp is scheduled to host a new session beginning Sunday.

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