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Dayton shooter’s school records should be released

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost is siding with media organizations suing for the school records of gunman Connor Betts, who killed nine people Aug. 4 in Dayton before being shot to death by police.

News organizations, including The Dayton Daily News, WHIO-TV, The Associated Press, CNN, The New York Times and others, have sued Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local Schools in southwest Ohio to obtain Betts’ school records. The lawsuit was triggered, at least in part, by claims from Betts’ former classmates that Betts had created a hit list and a rape list of students, had other incidents of violence and threats, and was suspended from school for an extended period.

Now, the Ohio Attorney General is arguing in support of the plaintiffs’ call for release of the records in a friend of the court document Yost filed Thursday in the second appellate court in Greene County, Ohio.

Yost, a former newspaper reporter, often has maintained that Ohio law demands broad access to public records. He argued in his court filing that U.S. Department of Education guidance indicates that federal privacy protections don’t apply after a student’s death.

Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local Schools attorney Tabitha Justice contends in her legal filings, however, that, “Respondents reasonably believed that the denial of confidential educational records during a mass media feeding frenzy would serve the public policy reasons underlying the laws making educational records confidential,” Justice’s answer reads.

As a journalist, I believe the public’s right to know information about the man who caused these horrific deaths far outweighs his right to privacy. (Personally, I also think the “mass media feeding frenzy” description used in the school district’s court filing is a bit of an overreaction, but then that’s the journalist in me speaking.)

And even though Yost is using Betts’ death as a point in calling for surrender of the school records, I would, in fact, maintain my argument for openness even if Betts had survived the return fire that came within 30 seconds from Dayton police.

The school is arguing, however, that there is “no legal authority for the proposition that those statutory protections expire upon the death of the student.”

The lawsuit, which I suspect will become very costly for that school district to defend, raises lots of questions that could come to play in any school district — even those here in the Mahoning Valley, God forbid, or anywhere in Ohio.

That’s why the importance from the outcome of this lawsuit far outreaches the impact on just this case.

Given the same situation, I suspect school officials at all or most Ohio high schools would make similar arguments against release of the records, believing they are obligated to deny public or media access to the school files. The Dayton district is arguing against turning over the records, saying such “records are generally protected by both federal and state law.”

And of course they are. Would anyone want schools to have the ability or right to start handing over student files to anyone who walks in off the street and asks? But laws safeguarding student records need to have limits when it comes to things like serious crimes and, especially, in cases of mass shootings. Doesn’t the public have a right to know what might have driven this kind of horrific act or what kind of red flags had been waved ahead of time, if for no other reason than to use this knowledge to head off future acts?

In fact, that’s exactly the argument made by Dayton Daily News and WHIO-TV’s attorney Erin E. Rhinehart.

“This community and the country at large deserve to know why this tragedy happened, what might have led to it and what may be done to prevent future tragedies,” she argued.

Residents of Dayton and all Ohio school officials should be watching with great interest the developments and outcome of this case. I know I will be.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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