The Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colo., is under intense scrutiny after an investigation found officials from the district intentionally destroyed records of a special needs student in order to keep them away from his family.
The district’s actions were brought to light after the student’s father, corporate lawyer Ephraim Starr, filed an Open Records Act request with the school. Starr requested the educational records of his 9-year-old autistic son, Isaac, after the child started reverting back to problematic behaviors he hadn’t displayed in years. The behaviors started soon after Isaac was enrolled in the Poudre School District following the family’s move from California.
"He would throw 45-minute tantrums, things he had done when he was several years younger, that now started resurfacing again," said Starr. "He wasn't doing well in school. Things were getting much worse."
Starr’s Open Records request did turn up a number of documents, though they were not at all what the Starr’s expected to see. The family discovered that Sarah Belleau, the district’s director of integrated services, was telling school staff to delete all records they had on file for Isaac.
Here is one of Belleau’s emails to her special education coordinator from Dec. 9, 2010:
Please delete this e-mail when done…
Please ask all involved staff to delete AND destroy any e-mail or paper records related to this family. When they delete the e-mail, they need to then "empty the trash" Please have them do this immediately. All other records with the exception of the latest plan should be destroyed -- shred. The reason is to protect against an Open Records Request.
Thank you for doing this and for verbally communicating this with staff. I do not want this put in writing.
An email dated just days after Starr’s request shows that Isaac’s principal at Bacon Elementary, Joe Horky, was involved in the cover-up too. Horky mentioned both Belleau and Starr in an email and encouraged staff to use a code word when referring to the two in order to avoid the email from showing up in data searches.
“Student initials may not be the only/best answer to our email issue," read Horky’s email. "Please creatively think of something we may all be able to use as a 'code' word - haha!!”
He later reminded officials to delete all emails and records pertaining to Isaac in an email saying, “Delete your message!” “Delete your deleted!” and, “Delete your sent!”
Special Education Coordinator Gloria Hohrein told Colorado news station ABC 7 the officials deleted their messages out of fear “that he [Ephraim Starr] would bring a lawsuit against the school district. Because he wasn't getting the services he wanted."
As you would imagine, the Starrs feel incredibly betrayed by the district.
"I'd never seen a record like that in my life," Starr said. "I didn't know what to think. I felt like, so not only do we have every reason to be distrustful of these people, but by virtue of their approach to our son's special education they were intentionally destroying the very records on which we would like to rely to make sure his education was what he deserved."
The Starr family’s lawsuit against the Poudre District has cost taxpayers over $200,000. After finding the district illegally held records from the family, a judge ordered the district to pay the family’s $122,577 in attorney fees. The district also had to foot a $56,609 bill owed to a data recovery agency used in the investigation. The lawsuit has not yet come to a close.
"It's not merely unethical, unconscionable; it's fundamentally corrupt, I think," Starr said. "Parents throughout the district ought to be concerned that what the school district is telling parents is not the same as what's actually happening."