When attorney Ephraim Starr asked administrators at his son’s school for access to documents regarding the young boy’s education, he did not expect to learn that they had been intentionally destroying some records that openly mocked the concerned father and used code names for the family. Now, several years later, he is speaking out against the district, which he feels undermined him, deceived him and put his son’s education at risk.
A TROUBLED BEGINNING
The issues between the Starrs and Poudre School District in northern Colorado started when the family first enrolled their son Isaac, who has Autism, in the district school. From the start, the Starrs sensed that the district wanted to avoid -- for financial purposes -- providing Isaac with necessary services, Ephraim Starr told The Huffington Post over the phone.
Months after enrollment, Starr saw his son’s condition regressing. In an effort to find out what was going on behind the scenes, he asked the district to provide him with documents relating to his son’s education and behavior.
“It wasn’t so obvious something wrong was going on, but based on my intuition, I really pushed to get the records,” Starr told HuffPost.
The district provided the family with very few documents, though some of the papers led the family to believe records were being intentionally withheld. After pressing the district, Ephraim received a document that left him flabbergasted. It was an email from the district’s director of integrated services, Sarah Belleau, who in the text instructed an employee to verbally order other staff members to delete files related to the Starr family.
“Please ask all involved staff to delete AND destroy any email or paper records related to this family. … The reason is to protect against an Open Records Request,” reads the email, which Ephraim Starr provided to HuffPost.
The Starrs decided to take the district to court, hoping to find out what was going on.
After filing a civil complaint under Colorado’s Open Records Act, the Starrs were able to obtain a number of other documents regarding their son. These files show staff members being directed by a number of administrators to delete emails and documents regarding Isaac Starr. Other times, staff members were instructed to use code names for the Starr family. (One staffer suggested the name "Prince" for Isaac Starr.) Some documents show open disdain for the family and their concern with their son's education.
One email Ephraim Starr showed HuffPost was written after he had contacted the district to ask about receiving in-home services for his son on days when school is out. From the email: “I actually predicted he would be trying to get the in-home services. … I’m sure Ms. Does is about to go crazy! What if Does’ son forgets how to count to 20 or even worse. … [H]ow old he is? Oops … sarcasm.” (The names of the Starrs were redacted in court documents and changed to Mr. and Mrs. Doe.)
The district was able to recover a number of files thought to have been permanently deleted. However, some documents regarding Isaac Starr were irretrievably destroyed, according to Steve Zansberg, the family’s lawyer, who spoke with HuffPost over the phone.
In the end, the judge ruled that the district did not do anything illegal under the Colorado Open Records Act.
“The judge found that … a good number of records had been withheld, but the open records act wasn’t violated by the school board or school district,” he said. “The open records act itself does not contain a duty to retain records.”
Instead, the district was ordered to pay a portion of the Starrs' legal fees.
A statement provided to HuffPost from Poudre School District notes that the case’s judge said the incident was “embarrassing to the District or showing unprofessional and perhaps unethical conduct with respect to preservation of documents,” and that condemns the behavior that took place. Further, the judge found that the district did its due diligence in retrieving some previously deleted documents, according to the statement.
At least one employee was fired as a result of the incident, according to Colorado news outlet KMGH-TV.
Gloria Horhein, formerly a special education coordinator with the district, says she was terminated after taking the extra step of consulting with an employee in the IT department and learning how to permanently delete emails about the Starrs from the district server. While Horhein said she thought she was just following instructions, administrators apparently thought she had gone too far, reported KMGH.
Sarah Belleau, who instructed Horhein and other staff members to delete emails, kept her job. According to KMGH, she was also given an Employee of the Year award in 2012 by the local mayor.
In a statement to HuffPost, the district said it would not discuss confidential personnel matters.
Ephraim Starr told KMGH that he thinks other district parents should be concerned about their children’s education.
"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."
Starr also said the family is currently involved in another lawsuit with the district over their son's schooling, specifically the process employed by the district to determine the kinds of services made available to him.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post said the Starrs' lawsuit" lawsuit "did not prove that harm was being done to Isaac’s education." That language has been removed. Also, another sentence said a judge ruled the district did not do anything illegal, when they had not done anything illegal under the Colorado Open Information Act.