Judge orders release of Woodland Park School District surveillance footage to parent

Update: On Thursday, Apr. 13, the Colorado Court of Appeals granted the Woodland Park School District’s request to stay the district court’s order.

By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director

A judge Wednesday ordered the Woodland Park School District to disclose video surveillance footage showing three school board members talking with a candidate for superintendent after a public meeting last December.

Teller County District Court Judge Scott Sells said he was not persuaded by the school district’s argument that the recordings either aren’t public records as defined by the Colorado Open Records Act or could lawfully be withheld under CORA’s discretionary exception for records revealing “specialized details … of security arrangements or investigations.”

Woodland Park school board
Woodland Park school board. (Credit: Woodland Park School District, YouTube)

The district also had claimed parent Erin O’Connell hadn’t been specific enough in her request for 1.5 hours of footage from the night of Dec. 19, 2022, taken by certain cameras located in the central office lobby, an area known as the “commons,” a hallway and the high school auditorium.

Sells ruled from the bench in favor of O’Connell, who last year accused the school board of a Colorado Open Meetings Law violation after it discussed a memorandum of understanding with a charter school under a vague “BOARD HOUSEKEEPING” agenda item. She is represented in both lawsuits by attorney Eric Maxfield, a board member of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

“I find it somewhat troubling, based on the history of this case between Ms. O’Connell and the school board, that the school (district) would say we’ve got three board members and a superintendent (candidate) on tape but we’re not going to turn it over to you and we’ve got nothing to hide,” Sells said. “I find that somewhat troubling, the lack of transparency by the school board and the school district.”

The judge said he does not “take the issue of school safety lightly” and likely would not have ordered release of the surveillance footage had O’Connell’s request involved a situation such as active-shooter training in school hallways.

“This was on the night of a school board meeting with three board members and the superintendent applicant walking down a hall that they know is recorded on video,” Sells said “… An argument that this impacts security or the safety of the school is not credible to me.”

In a filing submitted to the court, school district attorney Bryce Carlson contended the security footage requested by O’Connell “is highly sensitive in the wrong hands. For example, knowing which entrances and exits are covered by security cameras and which are not would be incredibly useful to someone planning an attack … While Plaintiff (O’Connell) may not be planning a physical attack, she is not immune from the exceptions under CORA.”

Sells said O’Connell “may be a thorn in the side of the Woodland Park School District but she’s not a security threat based on the evidence before the court.” The language in Carlson’s brief was a “cheap shot at Ms. O’Connell,” the judge added.

Sells found that the security footage is a public record under CORA, knocking down an argument from Carlson that the conversation caught on tape was “of a personal nature” and therefore not in line with the law’s definition of public records — “for use in the exercise of functions required or authorized by law or administrative rule or involving the receipt or expenditure of public funds.” The judge noted that public dollars pay for the security cameras, which monitor staff and student behavior.

Carlson told the judge there is no audio with the footage, “but no person involved in that conversation has indicated they remember any public business being discussed.”

“It is obvious (O’Connell) is in search of material for allegations of open meetings violations against the Board; however, no such violation occurred,” the lawyer wrote in the brief he filed with the court.

Carlson acknowledged that three unnamed members of the board talked with superintendent candidate Ken Witt (who later was appointed superintendent) after the school board adjourned the evening of Dec. 19 and Witt was waiting for a ride home. “Similar informal and personal conversations happen at virtually every public board meeting across the state,” he wrote.

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