District Holding Some Notes in Assault Case
The Grosse Pointe, Mich., school system has refused to surrender certain notes in a rape investigation involving district students, saying state law prohibits school officials from releasing records of conversations between students and staff members.
Education law experts say such a state law has rarely been used to prevent the release of student-staff communications in criminal cases.
According to the district's lawyer, Caryn Wells, the principal of the 1,274-student Grosse Pointe North High School became aware of the alleged rapes while investigating how a lewd photograph of senior-class president Daniel Granger appeared in school's 1998 yearbook. During those inquiries, three female students accused Mr. Granger and three other male students of sexual assault.
Police then investigated the accusations, and the four young men who attend school in an affluent suburb of Detroit were charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct.
The girls were 14 at the time of the alleged incidents, which are said to have occurred in private homes last December and January. Under Michigan law, 16 is the age of consent for sex. The four defendants were all 18 or 19 at the time. If convicted, they could face up to 15 years in prison.
Mr. Granger's lawyer, William Bufalino, said last week that his client "categorically denies having sexual intercourse [with the accusers] or not to the level these young girls imagined." Mr. Granger and the other defendants have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
In a preliminary hearing last month in Wayne County Circuit Court, Judge Lynne Pierce ordered the district to surrender the principal's notes about all of the students involved in the case.
The district complied but refused to provide additional notes sought by both the prosecution and the defense because they concerned other students.
Prosecutors are seeking the additional records in an attempt to corroborate the accusers' accounts and to identify any other possible victims or assailants. Defense lawyers also are seeking the notes in an effort to bolster their cases.
"If somebody said to the school [official] that a student did such and such with so-and-so, that's evidence," said Richard Padzieski, the chief of operations in the prosecutor's office in Wayne County, Mich.
But Mark McInerney, a lawyer for the 8,500-student district, said that the school system is trying to satisfy the statute, not obstruct the prosecution. The 1961 Michigan law says that "confidential communication with teachers and administrators and behavioral records cannot be released without parents' or students' OK," he said.
Interviews with a student have the same protection as a person's discussions with a doctor or a priest and must be kept confidential, he argued.
"Society wants students to talk to a teacher without being afraid that the conversation is going to get out," he said.
In a Bind
Gwendolyn H. Gregory, an outside counsel to the National School Boards Association and an expert on education law, said she knows of no other case in which a state privacy law was invoked to block the release of notes in a criminal investigation.
Federal law requires school districts to keep student records confidential, with some exceptions. But Ms. Gregory said she was unaware of state laws other than Michigan's that further protect student records or private communications with school officials.
Cases such as the one involving Grosse Pointe North High School put administrators in a bind, she said. They are stuck between violating student privacy, thus risking a parent's lawsuit if they divulge information about a child, and inhibiting an investigation that could lead to a criminal conviction.
"It's always a quandary," Ms. Gregory said. "You just have to work it out to maintain the confidentiality, but not so you allow the perpetrator to get away with it."
Mr. Padzieski of the county prosecutor's office said last week that he plans to seek a subpoena at the end of the month to get the remaining records from the district.
Vol. 17, Issue 43, Page 15Published in Print: August 5, 1998, as District Holding Some Notes in Assault Case