The St. John County School Board in North Florida has had a hard time trying to figure out what to do with citizens who hold them accountable.
The school board has been struggling with this dilemma since November 2015 when a school bus accident left a child severely injured, sparking an investigation by PINAC reporter Jeff Gray, who began making public records requests into the district's pre-trip inspections of school busses.
Since that time, school board officials have concocted a number of different ways to deter Gray from pursuing his investigations, including issuing a trespass warning against him under Florida’s School Safety Zone Statute, having him arrested for peacefully protesting and filing a SLAPP suit against him.
So far, their attempts to put Gray in his place have failed but they haven’t given up just yet.
The lengths the board has gone to keep Gray from accessing information
Gray is no stranger to investigating government entities. He famously started the movement of “Civil Rights Investigations” and “First Amendment Audits,” which he has been doing for the last six years.
“Open government investigations are where regular citizens audit our public employees for compliance with our civil rights to access public records," Gray said.
Gray began his investigation when he requested pre-trip inspection bus records related to the maintenance of a school bus that was involved in the accident in St. John County which seriously injured Kaden Hicks.
The records proved that the driver had not documented a pre-trip inspection of the school bus before starting his route that morning.
Next, Gray staked out the school district’s bus barn and documented bus drivers as they arrived, started their buses, and drove away without ever performing the required pre-trip inspection.
His request to the bus driver didn’t sit well with the school board who then issued a trespass order for Gray under Florida’s School Safety Zone law, designed to keep pedophiles, gang members and drug dealers away from schools. The order was issued after Gray posted video of his record request to his YouTube channel, Honor Your Oath.
The school board also filed a lawsuit against Gray, asking a judge to make him take down videos of bus drivers failing to perform the required inspections and to stop him from making future public record requests on site.
Gray protested the trespass order by standing on the public sidewalk outside of a St John’s County Schools holding a sign that said, “The First Amendment is not a crime.” Deputies quickly arrested him for violation of the trespass order as well as charging him with the Florida Statute for trespassing which would prevent him from going on all school board property. Those charges were later dropped. Read more about that here.
Why don’t public entities just follow the law?
His troubles with the school board haven’t deterred Gray, who has continued to push for greater access to the district’s public records.
One of his most recent public records requests to the district, for emails between the school district’s attorney David M. Delaney and the district’s school board members, produced information about a public records training session being held in Alachua County at a Principal’s meeting. The public records training was being given by Delaney.
Gray made another public records request to the Alachua County School District for the training information and the records that the district produced give us a glimpse into the efforts of Delaney to encourage public employees to violate Florida’s Public Records Laws or at least make it more difficult for the public to have access to public records.
The training session included a power point presentation which included advise on “how to avoid becoming the next YouTube sensation” and main take away ideas that included
- · Make sure your frontline employees and volunteers know to call you as soon as they hear “public records request”.
- · I am busy right now. You may contact the staff’s attorney at Kirby Smith for a response to your request.
- · Do not engage in a debate. Maintain your professional demeanor.
- · Make STATEMENTS not requests. Eg. I do not consent to being recorded.
- · Call SRO or local law enforcement
Sadly, providing the records according to the guidelines of the law was not one of the take away points.
The fight for accountability never ends
Most recently, Gray made a public records request to the school board for “copies of all complaints alleging sexual misconduct against SJCSD employees…I would also like the results of the investigations into these same complaints.” Gray had been inspired to make the request after a prior request for the employee file of the driver of the bus involved in the Kaden Hicks crash produced a letter of reprimand for an incident of sexual harassment.
The school board, always searching for ways to keep Gray from accessing information, sent him an invoice for $20,160 to access the records claiming they would have to pay an employee $12.60/hour to go through 4800 employee files to find any complaints or completed investigations, claiming that the complaints and investigatory files are kept in the employee’s individual files and that each would need to be hand searched to find the responsive records. They estimated this would take 1600 employee hours.