Soon after The Daily Wire published an investigation that was unflattering to Democratic politician Terry McAuliffe and the Fairfax County Public Schools, FCPS filed legal action against the story’s source: the mother of a special-ed parent who relayed records that the school system provided to her under public records laws.
It also sued another mother of a special-needs student who runs a blog that published portions of the records. The documents are billing records showing how FCPS paid Hunton Andrews Kurth, a law firm that hired now-Virginia gubernatorial candidate McAuliffe as a top advisor, to do much of what parents say is the school system’s dirty work, including seeking to dismiss a class action lawsuit filed by special-ed parents who allege that their children were systematically physically abused by educators.
The school system said it “mistakenly” released the records, and claimed they contained information that could violate federal law. Ironically, one of the services Hunton provided to FCPS is reviewing FOIAs, and these materials were largely Hunton’s own billing records.
The unusual legal maneuver, highlighting questions about whether schools exist to serve parents or the other way around, came hours before McAuliffe – whose campaign has received nearly $1 million from teachers unions – said in a debate that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” It also came in the same district that cut off a mother during public comment when she raised questions about improper books.
Mother Debra Tisler found the school system combative when it came to meeting her child’s special needs, as well as secretive. So she filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records showing payments to the attorneys who sometimes fought against parents. She paid the school system’s FOIA office $300 and it emailed her a link to the records.
She shared them with The Daily Wire, which reported Tuesday that more than 1,300 pages of billing records show Hunton charged $700 an hour representing the school system as it was found responsible for violating environmental regulations; apparently negotiating with foreign hackers after student data was stolen in a ransomware attack; and seeking to dismiss a lawsuit from special-ed parents who alleged that their children were dragged across the floor, kept in cardboard boxes, put in tiny isolation rooms hundreds of times, put in chokeholds, and struck in the head hard enough to receive a concussion.
On Tuesday afternoon, FCPS filed a “Complaint for Injunctive Relief and Damages” against the mothers, saying that “Contrary to normal procedure, the FCPS Records had been provided to Defendant Tisler without a second-level review by counsel. Further review of the FCPS Records revealed that, although they contained redactions of some Confidential Information, the redactions were incomplete.”
“The School Board’s counsel also sent a letter to Defendant Tisler via hand delivery, email, and first class mail requesting a return call to discuss return of the FCPS Records. The letter instructed Defendant Tisler not to share of disseminate the FCPS Records.”
It says that when a letter was delivered, Tisler told the courier, “‘tell [them] to not send anything else to her home or come onto her property again.’ Other than this terse and hostile communication, Defendant Tisler has not responded to any of the School Board’s letters, emails, and phone calls.”
The attorneys also saw that Callie Oettinger, who conducts journalism serving the special-ed community, had posted about the records and uploaded small portions on her blog. It demanded that she “immediately remove the records from the website… refrain from disseminating the records by any means, contact counsel by no later than Sunday, September 24 at Noon to make arrangements to return (or destroy) the records, [and] provide contact information for anyone with whom she shared the records.”
It asks the court to enjoin “Defendants, and any persons acting on their behalf, from accessing, reproducing, or using the FCPS Records in any manner,” order “Defendants to provide a full accounting to the School Board to include the identity of all persons to whom they provided any portion of the FCPS records or a link to the FCPS Records,” and order “an award of such other and further relief as this Court deems just.”
A request for an emergency injunction says “the public interest favors” concealing the records. It orders the defendants to appear in court Thursday at 8:30 a.m.
Oettinger responded defiantly on her blog, which is a resource serving parents who need help ensuring that their kids with special needs get adequate services.
She said she had applied additional redactions to the subset of the documents she posted, and that “FCPS asking us to return records that were legally obtained is essentially an improper prior restraint under First Amendment law. It is censorship. We have something called First Amendment Rights in this country, so keeping quiet about information we viewed to be a problem wasn’t an option.”
The Daily Wire did not notice obvious security breaches impacting students in a quick review of the documents, though they contained plenty of material embarrassing to the school system, as well as showing that the politically-connected and high-priced law firm plays an unusually outsized role in the school system, down to helping write school newsletters and press releases.
The Daily Wire has also seen FCPS attempt to apply FOIA exemptions unusually aggressively in the past, including claiming “attorney-client privilege” as reason to redact a portion of an email that did not include any attorneys on it, where the redacted portion appeared to allude to an unpopular policy being pushed by school board members. It routinely attempts to charge vastly higher fees for record production than other agencies, and in one case simply did not respond to a FOIA request from this reporter at all, even to acknowledge receipt.
Oettinger cited legal precedent backing up her case that she did nothing wrong, and said that Fairfax had previously improperly disclosed information about her child without taking much action.
“Since 2017, FCPS has violated my family’s privacy about a dozen times; has provided me personally identifiable information (PII) about over a thousand students, parents, and family members; and has provided PII to other parents about students who are not their own… The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has found FCPS in noncompliance on numerous occasions — yet the noncompliance has continued… At no point has FCPS threatened legal action against individuals to whom it gave my family’s information without our consent… At no point has FCPS paid damages to address the repeated breaches or the time we’ve had to invest to address the breaches. … Now all of a sudden, FCPS is threatening legal action, which makes me wonder if this isn’t about privacy breaches, but perhaps about some of the questionable information in the documents,” she wrote.
She described Hunton’s aggressive efforts to retrieve the documents:
Later that day, my daughter was home alone when a “scary man” started banging on the door. She ran up to her bedroom and started recording him and called me. She said he was banging, looking in windows, and taking pictures of our home. I raced home and called the police after I saw her video. I called the police because I recognized the car. It was the same car from the day before.
My daughter got the guy’s tags and the police ran the tags. I explained to the police what I thought was occurring. I was advised by the policeman that I have a right to say whatever I want, that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. He said, too, that if we found anything in the documents that should be investigated, that we should bring it to the police station so that it could be given to a detective for investigation.
My son came home soon after and came through the front door, although we all usually use the garage. He parks closer to the door and happened to see something on it. He found a letter duck [sic] taped to the front door. He found a small plastic bag attached to the door handle with a letter in it, too.
The letter on the handle was from Ellen Kennedy of FCPS. The letter duck [sic] taped to the door – which ripped a large swath of paint off my door that I would like FCPS or Hunton Andrews Kurth to fix – was from FCPS’s law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth.
She said that while FCPS mobilized high-priced attorneys and issued urgent demands when it might make the school system look bad, in her experience dealing with the school system, they are reluctant to dedicate similar energy and resources to special-needs children, and it is doubtful the school would ever take prompt action to help a parent on a Sunday morning, as it is demanding of her.
She said that she and Tisler have filed a complaint with the state department of education accusing FCPS of retaliation.
“The reality: The public interest favors keeping the FOIA’d documents public. There’s information about the cyber hacking, the Blackboard investigation, negotiations to extend Superintendent Brabrand’s contract, and a ridiculous amount of information pointing out waste. All of this is information that is 100% in the public interest of sharing,” she wrote.
“After all, if people on the inside aren’t going to point out the problems, then people on the outside must.”