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Judge: Personal emails of school officials are public record

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: A judge in Bergen County has become the second to rule that personal emails of public officials – the type that were sent by Gov. Chris Christie’s top deputy from her Gmail account – are covered by the Open Public Records Act, under a decision involving Northern Valley Regional School District’s proposal for mandatory random drug testing for students.

As part of a decision ostensibly involving the awarding of legal fees, Bergen Assignment Judge Peter Doyne said the specific emails sent by district officials from their personal emails must be turned over to lawyers for Ann Hausmann, a parent who is fighting the drug testing proposal.

“The public policy favoring transparency and ease of access to information is better served by ensuring government entities do not improperly withhold documents irrespective of their significance,” Doyne wrote.

The judge also awarded the district $7,500 in fees for reviewing and producing all of the materials that Hausmann requested.

READ THE DECISION: Hausmann v. Northern Valley Regional

Doyne in November originally ordered the district to send him 57 documents that it had denied showing to Hausmann’s lawyers.

He also rejected a request by the district that he toss out a complaint brought by parent Ann Hausmann, who accused the Northern Valley Regional Board of Education of violating OPRA.

Acting on behalf of a group of parents, Hausmann last June submitted a request under OPRA for all “notes, documents, communications and other information between and among board members[,] as well as from board meetings,” that led board members to propose random drug testing for all students participating in extracurricular activities, including sports.

Hausmann said the parents were trying to verify a claim by Northern Valley Board President John Schettino and other board members that they “had evidence and data from the police and from the State to support their assertions that there is a drug epidemic in the [d]istrict, and that [random drug testing] will work to combat the drug epidemic.”

Board members also said during a May meeting that they received “more letters and e-mails from parents supporting RDT than opposing it” and that an ad hoc committee supported the move, Hausmann noted.

The parents simply wanted proof, she said.

The drug-testing issue has brought large numbers of parents and students to board meetings — and even prompted teens from the district’s high schools in Demarest and Old Tappan to attend dressed in caricatured prisoner-styled costumes, saying that’s how the proposal would make them feel. Students from seven towns attend the district’s schools.

As before, parents expressed opposition to the proposal — calling it over-reaching and ineffective — during a public hearing last Thursday.

Board members say the use of heroin and other drugs is rising in North Jersey, and that random drug testing helps fight its spread. An Old Tappan police detective told the gathering on Thursday that he’d arrested only one teen on drug charges in his first 26 years on the force — but 15 since 2012.

Opposing parents point to studies that show such programs don’t work, that the figures the district is using are inflated and that board members are overstepping their public authority by seeking to invade their children’s privacy.

Nearly three dozen school districts in New Jersey have established random drug testing for students since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that its purpose outweighs Fourth Amendment concerns.

Board members said that heroin, marijuana and alcohol consumed more than a day earlier might be detected through the testing.

Under the proposed program, students who participate in extracurricular activities or have school parking privileges would be required to submit to urine testing.

No one would be arrested, suspended or expelled, nor would the information appear on a student’s record, district officials said. However, he or she would be banned from activities and lose parking privileges.

Doyne acknowledged that some of the records sought should be kept private. Those involve deliberations among board members and administrators of the merits of a random drug testing policy, he explained.

However, the judge found that personal emails involving board business aren’t protected from disclosure.

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