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Grand Rapids development: Coopersville School District

The Grand Rapids Press sues Coopersville schools to disclose amount paid to hazing victims
by Nate Reens | The Grand Rapids Press
Friday August 14, 2009, 10:23 AM

COOPERSVILLE — The Coopersville school district illegally entered into a secret settlement keeping the public from knowing how much was paid two victims in a high-profile sports hazing case, a lawsuit filed by The Grand Rapids Press alleges.

Filed Thursday in Ottawa County Circuit Court in Grand Haven, the lawsuit claims the district gave insufficient explanations for rejecting release of financial records resolving a suit by the victims against Coopersville Area Public Schools.

The victims had sought $5 million. The newspaper sought the settlement amount under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The Press is requesting a judge order the district disclose “any amounts of money paid by the schools, or on their behalf,” in settling the federal civil rights action. The Press also argues the court should declare the nondisclosure a FOIA violation.

The newspaper is suing based on the principle the public has a right to know how its tax money is spent, Press Editor Paul M. Keep said.

The newspaper has not identified the teen victims because of their ages and the abuse suffered.

“The Press specifically did not ask to know who got what, but rather what the taxpayer bill amounted to in the settlement of each of these high-profile cases,” Keep said.

“Our newspaper takes very seriously its role as a watchdog on government, and we believe The Press, just like all citizens of this area, should have the right to this information and that the Coopersville schools made a mistake in denying our Freedom of Information Act request.

“No one likes to file a lawsuit, but we are willing to fight in court if need be to obtain this information for our readers,” he said.

Jim Jamo, the district’s attorney, declined comment.

Jamo, who denied the information request on behalf of the school district, had not seen The Press’ lawsuit, he said.

The Lansing-based attorney rejected the newspaper’s request, citing attorney-client and settlement privileges, confidentiality requirements and a ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker.

Jonker approved the accord last month.

TIMELINE

Coopersville hazing cases

May 2007 — Public learns of junior varsity baseball team hazing in boy’s locker room, leading to four student suspensions amid a police investigation. Team coach resigns.

June 4, 2007 — Four student players expelled for their role in more than a dozen hazing incidents involving two victims.

June 8, 2007 — Four students charged criminally with gross indecency. Later, they are sentenced to six months of probation and community service.

May 2008 — Three expelled students seek readmission. School board rejects the request.

June 2008 — Parents of two victims file federal lawsuit against Coopersville Schools and coaches, and offenders, seeking $5 million.

July 2009 — Judge Robert Jonker approves confidential settlement with the district, citing the victims’ ages and the mediation process as reasons for the confidentiality.

Press attorney James Brady argues the denial cited by Jamo is inadequate on several levels.

The client privilege extends only to legal communications, and state courts have not recognized a “so-called ‘settlement privilege,'” Brady wrote.

The Press also contends public bodies are not permitted to contract away FOIA obligations, as the district did in outsourcing the request to Jamo.

Finally, there has been no ruling on confidentiality provisions by the federal district court or any other Michigan court of similar jurisdiction, Brady argues.

Neither Superintendent Kevin O’Neill nor school board President Lori Rander could be reached for comment Thursday.

The highly-publicized hazing divided the community after it was revealed two Coopersville High School junior varsity baseball players were physically and sexually assaulted in a school locker room. The abuse happened over a four- to six-week period in 2007.

The four offenders were expelled from school. All received juvenile court sentences for inflicting indignities that included grinding fingers or knuckles into a victim’s rectum; putting bare buttocks into the face of a victim; slapping genitals; and inserting a finger into a student’s mouth and pulling hard on the inside of the cheek, court documents showed.

The public records sought by The Press “are essential to vindicating the public’s interest in monitoring the program and the administration of the School by its elected and appointed officials, and the expending of funds,” according to the suit.

“The Press, and the public it serves, will be irreparably injured, absent immediate and full disclosure of the information on this matter of enormous public concern,” Brady wrote.

The Press objected to the nondisclosure agreement in a letter to Jonker before he approved the settlement.

He said the confidentiality — which both sides agreed upon — outweighs the public interest in some situations.

Jonker justified the confidentiality agreement, basing it on “sensitive events,” adolescents in high school settings, and the need to afford protection to vulnerable victims.

In addition to the settlement approved by Jonker, the district and the victims came to terms on “non-economic” agreements aimed at preventing similar hazing problems.

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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