The ACLU of Rhode Island is asking a court to impose fines against the Pawtucket School District for failing to respond to an open records request the ACLU submitted in October. The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court by ACLU volunteer attorney Karen Davidson, charges that the district unlawfully failed to respond to two requests from the ACLU for public documents. It is the second time in two years the ACLU has sued Pawtucket schools for ignoring the open records law.

In October, the ACLU filed an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request with every school district in the state, seeking documents about their implementation of the state’s new “high stakes testing” graduation requirement, and specifically, the district’s process for allowing the requirement to be waived for certain students. A waiver process is required by RI Department of Education regulations. When Pawtucket did not respond to the request, the ACLU sent a follow-up letter, but again received no response, prompting this lawsuit. The suit contends that the district’s failure to provide the records is a clear violation of APRA, and seeks a court order requiring the district to turn over the requested documents, imposition of a fine for violating the law, and an award of attorneys’ fees.

The ACLU received responses from every other school district in the state, although some indicated that they were still in the process of developing a waiver policy. In March 2012, Pawtucket was one of only two school districts that was sued by the ACLU for failing to respond to another open records request, that one seeking policies relating to school resource officers. Shortly after that suit was filed, Pawtucket provided the documents and the ACLU agreed to drop the lawsuit without seeking penalties.

ACLU volunteer attorney Davidson said today: “Pawtucket’s cavalier failure to respond to open records requests from the ACLU – not once, but twice in two years – is inexcusable. We have been forced to take action because we can’t let requests for necessary information be ignored like this. I am hopeful that the court will hold the school district fully accountable.” ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown added: “The ACLU has the resources to sue public bodies for violations of the open records law when our requests are disregarded. Most residents do not have that ability, and that is why it is important to hold public bodies responsible when they refuse to take their obligations under this law seriously.” 

Karen Davidson: 453-6200; Steven Brown: 831-7171