Arkansas Advocate
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Good news and less than good news from Helena-West Helena comes as we mark Sunshine Week, an annual observance of the need to protect your right to know.

First, the good news: Helena World publisher Andrew Bagley reports his newspaper has reached a settlement with the state-run Helena-West Helena School District over access to surveillance video and other records from a Dec. 4 brawl inside Central High School.

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The not-so-good news is that Bagley said the school district withheld public records concerning another melee just two months later on Feb. 13 in the high school parking lot that resulted in arrest warrants for two adults who were involved.

Bagley said The World’s interest in the Dec. 4 “gang fight that included parents” began when the newspaper wanted to find out why city police were turned away by the district’s own police force when the city officers responded to a call that indicated the campus police had been overwhelmed by a mob.

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Bagley filed a lawsuit against the district and state-appointed Superintendent Keith McGee after McGee refused to release the video and documents containing students’ faces and names. The district claimed a broad exemption to releasing the information under a federal law that protects students’ “educational records” — a ruse authorities commonly hide behind to avoid disclosing obviously public records.

The district agreed last week to provide The World the requested video with identifiable faces blurred and documents with names redacted, as the newspaper had proposed in the first place to address privacy concerns.

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“This didn’t have to end up in court,” Bagley said. “It shouldn’t have ended up in court.”

The litigation was the “direct result of an administration that simply thought we did not have the resolve to stand up to their blatant violations of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act,” he said.

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He characterized the settlement as a win “for citizens who should be able to find out what their public officials are doing or not doing, particularly when it comes to the most precious asset a community has — its children.”

In an article in the weekly newspaper last week, Bagley said the information received through the settlement had already revealed that only one camera in the new high school was working, leaving the bulk of the building without any security video. The superintendent told Bagley no video exists of the Feb. 13 fracas because the camera trained on the parking lot wasn’t working.

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“That’s something patrons and parents need to know as they ask questions and demand improvements from their public school district,” Bagley said.

The FOIA fights in Phillips County bear sharing with a broader audience, especially as transparency advocates observe Sunshine Week, which highlights the importance of access to public records and open meetings nationwide.

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The observance is held in mid-March to coincide with the birthdate of James Madison (March 16, 1751), who was a driving force behind the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and presented the first draft of the Bill of Rights to Congress. He also was the fourth president of the United States.

Sunshine Week also gains relevance this year as the nation faces a pivotal presidential election and as government transparency advocates in Arkansas strive to put two proposals on the November ballot affecting your right to know.

One proposal would enshrine the public’s right to know in the state Constitution. The other would strengthen the state Freedom of Information Act in a number of ways, but most significantly by creating a commission to help citizens enforce the FOIA without having to resort to filing a lawsuit and by establishing personal civil liability for officials who violate the law.

This week, and every week, let the sun shine in.

Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: info@arkansasadvocate.com. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.

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