From The LaPorte Herald-Argus:
Question: We had an anonymous tip that a young boy fell asleep on a school bus on the way to school. The driver had the last kid off the bus hit the safety button at the back of the bus that normally would ensure the driver did a “walk through” to verify all the kids were off the bus. The driver drove the bus to her home, parked it and ran errands in her own vehicle. Meanwhile, the child who fell asleep woke up, somehow got out of the bus, knocked on the driver’s home door and, when he discovered no one was home, went to a neighbor’s home. The person calling in the tip said the driver was offered retirement instead of being fired. We checked out the story and were first told the school had no idea what we were talking about. Eventually, the school district acknowledged a student was left on a bus. They wouldn’t give the age, grade or sex of the student. They wouldn’t verify how the student was discovered or who returned the child to the school. They wouldn’t discuss any details at all. They said the driver is no longer employed by the school system but would not say the driver’s departure had anything to do with this incident. No police report was taken. What information are we entitled to in this situation?
Answer: If the bus driver was an employee then the question is whether he or she resigned or was terminated. If it was a termination, you can use the Access to Public Records Act to request records in the personnel file that point to the disciplinary action taken and the factual basis for that disciplinary action. See IC 5-14-3-4(b)(8)(C).
If the bus driver retired and no disciplinary action was taken then the school corporation can use its discretion to keep the driver’s personnel file confidential.
Of course, they could use their discretion to share the information out of the personnel file, but it doesn’t sound like they are likely to do so.
If the bus driver is an independent contractor rather than an employee (unlikely if the bus driver is drawing retirement from the school corporation) then there is no personnel-file issue.
Any records concerning the contractor’s performance would be records that should be disclosable, although the school could argue the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act would require it to redact information that would identify the child.
You could argue that the record isn’t an educational record and shouldn’t fall under Family Education Rights and Privacy Act but better strategy might be to get the record without the identifying information.
Chances are when you do the story, someone – even the family – might come forward with the child’s name, which could lead you to the family.
You also could inspect payroll records from before the incident and after to see who no longer is getting paid to narrow down list of people it could have been.
For media law questions, contact Stephen Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (317) 624-4427.