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Matt Von Pinnon, Published January 16 2011

Von Pinnon: We’re pursuing more information about Moorhead hockey incident

Access to information is a cornerstone of democracy. The public can’t effectively govern itself or make good decisions if it doesn’t know what’s going on.

It’s this foundational belief that drives The Forum to seek information that by law is deemed public.

Usually, the more sensitive the information, the more we run into obstacles trying to access it.

A recent example illustrates this point:

On Jan. 7, the Moorhead School District revealed to us that an unnamed number of its varsity hockey players were suspended for one or more games for victimizing a student on Dec. 27 inside the team’s locker room.

The school district stated in a news release that a hazing complaint had been made but that the players were actually disciplined for “verbal taunting and potentially harmful horseplay.” The head coach was also suspended for a game for failing to provide adequate supervision of the student-athletes.

The public still doesn’t officially know what happened inside that locker room (though there are tons of rumors), and the school district is choosing to not be forthright about it, citing the oft-used student privacy shroud, which is barely understood and almost never executed correctly by school officials.

In Minnesota, the law says complaints and student disciplinary files are open records so long as the students’ names and other identifying information are redacted from the record.

The Forum is not and never has been interested in publishing the students’ names.

Last Monday, we formally asked the district to provide us the written complaint that began their investigation, any written correspondence during it and the written conclusion that resulted in the suspensions.

The district has fought us on these matters, citing student privacy concerns.

We also asked for any disciplinary letters placed in the coach’s personnel file, which are public records. We didn’t know if this suspension was his first.

In response to that, Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak didn’t provide us the letter in the coach’s file, but wrote:

“Prior to the recent event, complaints were made, they were investigated, and no disciplinary action was taken.”

The public has a right to information regarding this incident so it can know and trust that its school district is handling student safety and disciplinary issues fairly and responsibly.

Unfortunately, we’ve run into similar obstacles to information regarding the Moorhead School District in the recent past. Just last year, we fought the district when it failed to disclose how much it planned to pay teachers until the school board ratified it, leaving Moorhead taxpayers unable to weigh in on the matter until it was a done deal.

We prevailed in that case, and it has since opened up records in similar cases for school taxpayers statewide.

We hope we won’t have to seek a remedy from the state or courts in this recent case, but we will if we have to.

The Forum has a long and hard-earned reputation for fighting the difficult fights when it comes to opening up information deemed public by law. We take that watchdog role very seriously. This one involving the Moorhead School District is just one of many such records cases we’re pursuing right now.

No other area media or individual has the wherewithal to do this kind of work. It takes time, money and dedication. But we’ll keep doing it as long as public officials try to hide public information. Fighting for the public’s right to know is a privilege.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.