In a recent decision, the Law Division of Superior Court, Bergen County, determined that eleven named school districts did not violate the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) or the common law right of public access to government records when, in response to a request for certain security drill records forms, they provided redacted documents. In WNBC-TV v. Allendale Board of Education, et.al., the court held that the redaction of day, time and duration data, as it pertained to fire and school security drills, fell under OPRA’s “security exemption” as it constituted “emergency or security information” which, if disclosed, would jeopardize the safety and security of school buildings and occupants. The information also related to “security measures,” the disclosure of which would create a risk to persons and property. The court found that the day/time/duration data was statutorily exempt from disclosure under OPRA.
The court explained that OPRA’s “security exemption,” consists of two separate provisions. The first refers to “emergency or security information or procedures” and the second to “security measures and surveillance techniques.” The day/time/duration data was descriptive data, which, the court found, consisted of “emergency or security information.” If disclosed, it would jeopardize the safety and security of the schools. The true potential for danger lay in the aggregate. Although the day/time/duration data for a single drill in isolation might not jeopardize safety or security, there was a greater risk that such interests would be infringed where, as here, disclosure was sought from twelve separate school districts over a period of more than two years. In such a case, the chances are greater a person intent on causing harm could use that information to predict the occurrence of future drills.
The school districts also provided specific reliable evidence for the redactions from various records custodians, police chiefs and other emergency personnel in support of nondisclosure. In this case, the court found that the risk to the schools created by disclosure was very real. Armed with the day/time/duration data, a potential assailant could pinpoint when the drills are most likely to occur, and know how long they tend to last, creating a “window of opportunity” in which to attempt to inflict maximum damage with reasonable accuracy. For example, knowing when a school or district tends to schedule fire drills, for example, provides a person with useful information as to when the buildings are likely to be empty, and, correspondingly, when the entire school population is likely to be congregated outside.
The court also found that, under a common law right of access analysis, the school districts’ interest in protecting school safety and security outweighed WNBC-TV’s interest in receiving unredacted records.
The eleven named school districts were Allendale, Bergenfield, Bergen Technical and Special Services, Englewood Cliffs, Hillsdale, Oakland, Old Tappan, Ramapo-Indian Hills Regional, Ramsey, River Vale and Tenafly. Alpine, Demarest, Little Ferry, Lyndhurst, and Northern Highlands had previously settled their claims and resolved their differences with WNBC-TV.
Board members are encouraged to discuss the ramifications of this decision at their local board level and consult with their board attorney for advice as to how to proceed.