DES MOINES - The Iowa Freedom of Information Council and four Quad Cities news companies sued the Bettendorf Community School District and its board of directors Monday for blocking journalists from covering a recent meeting at which parents expressed concern about violence in the district’s middle school.
Joining the 46-year-old nonprofit advocacy organization as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the Quad-City Times and television stations KWQC, WQAD and WHBF. Defendants are the school district and the seven members of its school board.
The lawsuit grows out of a meeting on May 25 that was attended by 200 to 300 parents, along with a majority of the members of the school board and Superintendent Michelle Morse. School employees were stationed at the doors of the Waterfront Center to keep reporters and photographers from entering the meeting.
The gathering was held one day after the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, killed 21 students and teachers. The meeting in Bettendorf followed mounting complaints from parents during the recently completed academic year about the lack of adequate response by school officials to rowdy behavior that left some students and their parents fearful.
The lawsuit asks the Scott County District Court to find the school district in violation of Iowa’s open meetings law and to issue an injunction prohibiting the school board from violating the statute in the future. The lawsuit also asks the court to fine members of the board who took part in the meeting.
In a letter sent to Superintendent Morse and school board president Rebecca Eastman a week after the May 25 meeting, the Iowa FOI Council and managers of the news companies expressed “profound disappointment” with Bettendorf officials’ decision to keep journalists from covering the meeting.
“The topic discussed on the evening of Wednesday, May 25, was one of the fundamental responsibilities of the Bettendorf Community School District — ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the district’s 4,700 students during each school day,” the letter stated.
The letter continued, “It would stretch believability to think that spending a couple of hours listening to the concerns of parents about the behavior of some Bettendorf Middle School students — including bullying and injuries suffered by students not otherwise involved in the incidents — does not fall within the meaning of deliberations on matters clearly within the scope of the Board of Education’s policy-making duties.”
Randy Evans, the executive director of the Iowa FOI Council, said the authors of Iowa’s open meetings law recognized the important work journalists do in informing the public about the issues and problems government faces and the potential solutions. But that cannot occur when government officials deny journalists access to meetings like the one held in Bettendorf.
Evans noted that the very first paragraph of the open meetings law states that any ambiguity in the interpretation of the statute should be resolved in favor of openness.
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