BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – After nearly a full year of hearings, filings, and negotiations, the Fort Madison School District has turned over video segments of a 2017 assembly that includes possible inappropriate behavior on the part of a school official.
Pen City Current had been made aware of alleged inappropriate conduct by Fort Madison Middle School Principal Todd Dirth, who had encouraged a student to hold the end of a banana suit that was hanging between his legs, at an assembly on Dec. 12, 2017.
Efforts to reach Dirth at Fort Madison Middle School Wednesday were directed to the central office. District officials have declined to comment on the issue due to the incident being a personnel issue, but released an unsigned statement that read Dirth’s employment continues and, following an investigation, he was disciplined for actions at the assembly.
“Mr. Dirth has been and continues to be a valued employee of the Fort Madison Community School District. In late 2017, the District investigated Mr. Dirth’s conduct during a school assembly that occurred in December 2017. At the conclusion of the investigation, the District took appropriate disciplinary action related to the incident.”
Pen City Current on Dec. 13th, submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act for release of the video on the grounds it was made at a public school assembly on district equipment. On Feb. 13th the district responded saying the video was protected under Iowa Code Chapter 22 because it contained personal information in personnel records. On March 2, Pen City Current filed an appeal with the district indicating it wasn’t looking for personal information, but a copy of a video recorded in front of more than 400 students and faculty. On May 11, the appeal was denied.
The issue was then sent to the Iowa Public Information Board on June 18th. The IPIB is a state board governed by Iowa code that is charged with formally and informally mitigating requests for public records. The FMCSD’s attorney, Emily Ellingson of Lynch Dallas out of Cedar Rapids, filed a response with the district’s opinion that the record was used in disciplinary action and was privileged under Chapter 22.7 of Iowa Code. The Current responded that the video was taken in front of an entire student body, faculty, and potentially other viewers, on public recording equipment and does not contain any personal information protected by Chapter 22.
Ellingson then filed a motion to dismiss to the IPIB on July 10th, writing that the complaint was filed with the IPIB more than 60 days after the alleged incident and was therefore beyond the scope of the IPIB. That motion to dismiss was granted by IPIB director Margaret Johnson. A hearing was held on July 19th regarding the dismissal. Pen City Current was not at that hearing, but received an audio recording of the hearing. At that hearing, the board upheld the dismissal 8-1 and Pen City Current filed for a rehearing that was held on Aug. 18.
At the July hearing, Ellingson, who was in attendance representing the district, told the IPIB that the district had maintained constant contact with Pen City Current during the initial request and the appeal process. At the following hearing she had stepped back from the statement after Pen City Current directed the board members to documentation in their possession that showed a reminder of the pending records request and no communication from the district other than one email indicating the issue had been forwarded to the district’s law firm.
Also at the July hearing, Ellingson told the board that IPIB director Johnson may not have been aware that the district didn’t create the video, but had to acquire the video. Johnson, told the board about three minutes later, when a member pressed Ellingson as to why it took 60 days to respond to Pen City Current’s initial request, that the district had to find the video.
“That I have an answer for. It took ’em a while to find it,” Johnson said at the hearing.
“He (Pen City Current Editor Chuck Vandenberg) requested it on the day that the event happened and to determine whether or not there’s been any kind of a tape, and I think that was during the investigation this was discovered,” Johnson said.
At the same July hearing Johnson told the board she was given the impression that the video was recorded by someone in the district. In an email Wednesday morning Johnson said she was initially was led to believe that the district did not record the video.
Ellingson told the board it was her understanding initially that the district didn’t have the video, but she didn’t dispute that the video was eventually in possession of the district and therefore it was a district record.
In the video released Wednesday morning at the school district’s office, a 360-degree camera was used to record the event and was set up on the floor of the gymnasium in full view of all in attendance. It was monitored, and at several times relocated on the gymnasium floor, by a district staff member.
Superintendent Erin Slater and Ellingson were not at the viewing on Wednesday morning, but provided a statement to Pen City Current and Tri-States Public Radio reporter Jason Parrott. Parrott had also filed an open records request for the video, after Pen City Current’s request was dismissed by the IPIB in August. Parrott’s request was also denied by the district under Chapter 22.7 and he immediately filed with the IPIB for a hearing to avoid the 60-day jurisdictional window.
While Parrott’s case was working through the IPIB process, another unrelated opinion was handed down by IPIB attorney Amanda Adams that had an impact on Pen City Current’s and Parrott’s complaint. A police officer in Ankeny was involved in a car accident and the dashboard camera caught the accident. Ankeny media requested the video footage, but were denied by the police department on the grounds that the video was part of the officer’s personnel file because of discipline resulting from the accident.
Adams issued an advisory opinion in that case, in summary, finding that the camera was a public camera and the incident occurred on a public street, therefore the video should be released to the public. After that advisory opinion was upheld unanimously by the IPIB in late September an offer was extended to Parrott and Pen City Current to view the video in exchange for a dismissal of the IPIB complaint by Parrott and Tri-States Public Radio.
Parrott and TSPR initially declined the offer stating that any viewing of the video should be a public release and not a private viewing. The complaint was originally being reviewed by Adams, but then was turned back over to Johnson several weeks ago. Johnson indicated that the complaint now became more complicated because the district did offer a viewing. On Thursday of last week, the offer to view the video footage was accepted by Parrott and included an offer for Pen City Current to view the video as well.
The video was presented in 11 segments in order to save time on the recording between assembly activities. Segments 1-8 show students engaged in a lowered-rim dunk contest with staff monitoring the event for safety, one staff member playing music, Dirth emceeing the activities, and a staffer running the 360-degree tripod camera and relocating it throughout the gym.
In a 45-second 9th segment, Dirth shows up in the gym with a yellow banana outfit draped over him with the end of the banana hanging below his waste. There are 35-40 students lined up on one side of the gym and the rest of the student body is in the gymnasium bleachers. Dirth is seen with his back to the basket and at least on one occasion tries to make a basket bouncing the ball backward between his legs. After a miss, he walks to the bleachers and selects a student to come out to the floor. The student’s face is blurred in the video. Dirth mentions something to the student at which point the student yanks their arm back and walks off the floor, turning at one point to say something back to Dirth on the way back to the bleachers. While the student walks from the floor, Dirth is holding up the end of the banana outfit with one hand
He then tucks the end of the banana back into the top half of the suit and tries to make another basket. In segment 10, Assistant Principal Brent Zirkel dunks a ball and then carefully falls into the line of students who fall like dominos as part of the skit, while Dirth pulls the end of the banana back out of his costume and it hangs again below his waist. Segment 11 is 11 seconds of more basketball action.
The video footage is provided here: https://youtu.be/aoJsfaOB6dA