Brechner Center Announces 2018 Freedom of Information Award Winner
The Joseph L. Brechner Center for Freedom of Information announced that Bethany Barnes, education reporter at The Oregonian in Portland, is the winner of the annual Brechner Freedom of Information Award. Barnes won for her dogged coverage of teacher sexual misconduct in Portland schools, which required her to battle repeatedly for access to records that the district fought to conceal. Her work played a role in the school district reevaluating its entire public-records policy.
The Brechner Center Award recognizes excellence in reporting about freedom of information, access to government-held information or the First Amendment. The award, which includes a $3,000 cash prize, is primarily intended to reward journalism that is about the public’s right-to-know and about government secrecy. Barnes will receive the award at a luncheon of the Florida Free Speech Forum in Gainesville on April 9.
“We had many impressive nominees, but what elevated The Oregonian’s work was its emphasis on the human toll of unjustified government secrecy. Young people’s safety was put at risk by a school district that protected a known harasser, sweeping complaint after complaint under the rug,” said Frank D. LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center. “Bethany Barnes’ persistent digging and sensitive storytelling unearthed long-buried complaints and caused others to come forward, exposing a dysfunctional teacher-oversight system in need of reform.”
Barnes, who has been with The Oregonian since 2016, wrote an investigation, “Benefit of the Doubt,” about how top officials in Portland Public Schools helped a veteran teacher, counselor and coach evade allegations of inappropriate sexual advances toward students for many years. A central element of the story was the school district’s failure to document the allegations against the man and share those records with the principals who subsequently supervised him or with the state teacher licensing board. Had the district done so, the teacher would likely have been removed from the classroom and banned from teaching many years earlier.
For months, the school district stonewalled Barnes’ request for information about how the teacher’s case was being handled, insisting most of the records were exempt from disclosure. Barnes wrote a 95-page appeal to the local district attorney and prevailed.
“The school district told me and the district attorney it had to keep these records secret to protect students.” Barnes said. “In fact, what those records showed was how the district failed to protect students.”
After Barnes’ stories, board members said they were troubled the district had battled with Barnes to keep secret records that were clearly in the public interest and proposed a new public records policy. Among other actions, it will require the school superintendent to “hire a Public Records Officer and develop administrative directives and procedures to provide clarity and consistency to the public about access to district public records. The Public Records Officer shall process all requests as soon as practicable and without unreasonable delay, without regard to the nature of the records or identity of the requester.”
The school district plans to provide records for no or minimum cost to the public, depending on the size of the request, and directs the superintendent to “develop clear guidelines regarding when it is appropriate to charge fees and to provide clarity to requesters as to how fees are determined.”
The Brechner Center has offered the Freedom of Information Award since 1986. Barnes is the first journalist from The Oregonian to win the award. A list of previous winners can be found at http://brechner.org/about/past-awards/.