McAuliffe-tied law firm sues special ed parents for posting embarrassing public records

Fairfax County Public Schools asks court to silence parents who received incorrectly redacted FOIA dump.

Published: September 30, 2021 3:42pm

Updated: October 1, 2021 11:30pm

"I don't think parents should be telling schools what they teach," Virginia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe said in a recent debate.

A wealthy Virginia school district outside Washington, D.C. went even further this week, with the help of a law firm tied to the former governor.

Represented by Hunton Andrews Kurth, Fairfax County Public Schools is suing two parents for learning about its dirty laundry from a state Freedom of Information Act request. It filed an emergency motion for a preliminary injunction Tuesday.

The parents, who are veterans of special-education battles in the district, accused FCPS of sending a goon to lurk around their homes ahead of the lawsuit. The "scary man" physically intimidated one of their families and damaged property, leading them to call police.

Callie Oettinger laid out the explosive allegations, timeline and backing documents in a lengthy post Tuesday, accusing FCPS of violating Virginia's law against "strategic lawsuits against public participation."

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She leads the parent activist group Special Education Action, which flogged the district last week for the "appalling state" of its special-ed program, as confirmed by a third-party "comprehensive review" and presentation of interim findings to the school board.

Oettinger claims to have compelled FCPS to return more than $30,000 it wrongly charged special ed families, and has a "systemic complaint" against the district under investigation by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE).

A Rhode Island mother who is locked in public-records litigation concerning her school district's curriculum on race and gender offered solidarity with the Virginia parents.

"The school sent harassing thugs to her house bc they demand she return the public info they gave her under FOIA, but public info is not returnable," Nicole Solas tweeted Thursday.

Staggering legal bills

FCPS has a chronic pattern of privacy violations against teachers, students and families, Oettinger wrote, and its fulfillment of the FOIA request was no exception.

Parent Debra Tisler sought the district's invoices from outside counsel to learn how much it was spending in legal fights with parents, on issues such as seclusion and restraint of special-ed children and racially motivated admissions changes.

The 1,500-page dump was inconsistently redacted, though, with some documents not obscuring protected information at all. She shared it with Oettinger, who redacted and posted some documents and described the contents of others. 

They include "extraordinarily sensitive information" about teachers, including grievances, investigations and dismissals. The documents also showed questionable uses of the pricey hired legal guns, including vetting FOIA requests and drafting school board motions.

"I thought school districts were supposed to be run by educators, but it seems FCPS's lawyers have a hand at the helm," Oettinger wrote.

The money the district spends on outside lawyers has drawn earlier attention. Another watchdog group with a spending tracker said that Hunton alone has earned nearly $11 million from the district since 2013.

Those Hunton expenditures jumped from about $400,000 a year to "several million" when Superintendent Scott Brabrand took over four years ago, Do Better FCPS tweeted in March. It ranked another dozen firms by district spending, including crisis communications and mediation.

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The special-ed parents filed a VDOE complaint against the district after finding reams of private information in the dump, asking for a systemic investigation of Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act violations. Oettinger said they added retaliation to the complaint following legal threat letters from the district.

Given the district has allegedly breached her family's privacy "about a dozen times" and shared personally identifiable information on more than a thousand students and families with her, Oettinger suspects the legal threats are really about "some of the questionable information in the documents." 

She claims the lawsuit is preempted by Supreme Court precedent on prior restraint, and that public interest is strong in several documents related to cyberhacking, Brabrand's contract negotiations and wasteful spending.

The district's emergency motion doesn't cite any legal authority that compels the return of mistakenly provided or incorrectly redacted documents, or their removal from Oettinger's website, and the state FOIA statute doesn't appear to have such a mechanism. 

FCPS has not responded to Just the News queries seeking the legal basis for return of the FOIA dump and removal of the posted documents, or a response to the parents' claims of lurking and harassment.

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