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A disciplinary report that outlines the suspension of a Wakefield teacher cannot be released publicly because it is considered part of the teacher’s personnel file and as such is exempt from the state’s public records law, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Thursday. The Wakefield Teachers Association had challenged the Wakefield school superintendent’s plans to release the report at the request of a Wakefield resident in 1995 in connection with disciplinary action taken against a male junior high school teacher. In making its finding in the case of Wakefield Teachers Association v. School Committee of Wakefield, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled that the report regarding the performance of the teacher is exempt from disclosure under the public records law (G.L. c.66, Section 10). “We hold that the report, which resulted in the teacher’s four-week suspension, constitutes part of the teacher’s ‘personnel . . . file [] or information,’ and is exempt from disclosure,” the justices wrote. Massachusetts Teachers Association attorney Ira C. Fader, who represented the plaintiffs in the case, said he found it “very gratifying” that the high court did not treat the personnel files of teachers and other public employees differently from other types of employees. Fader said he was pleased the SJC “honored the privacy issue.” Wakefield lawyer Thomas A. Mullen, who represented the school committee, could not be reached for comment before deadline. THE EXEMPT DOZEN The Legislature has identified 12 categories of records otherwise public that are exempt from disclosure. The SJC, after reviewing the statute, concluded that it creates two categories of records exempt from disclosure: personnel and medical files or information and “other materials or data relating to a specifically named individual, the disclosure of which may constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” While the SJC has no doubt the case may be resolved solely on the plain statutory language, its decision considers the legislative purpose behind the exemption. “The Legislature clearly balanced competing public policy considerations that we shall not second-guess. The exemption from disclosure of personnel files and information has, among other benefits, the protection of the government’s ability to function effectively as an employer,” the justices wrote. The SJC noted that numerous state and federal courts have concluded that disciplinary reports are part of an individual’s personnel information. The teacher was suspended without pay for four weeks after an investigation by the superintendent revealed that the teacher (who is not identified in the SJC decision) had written potentially inappropriate notes on the homework assignments of two female students in his class. The superintendent had concluded that the teacher’s conduct “crossed over the line of responsibility a teacher has to a student.” A resident of Wakefield requested of the superintendent any information regarding the teacher’s suspension, but noted that he was not interested in the names of the teacher or students, only the nature of the offense for which he was suspended. In July 1995, Middlesex Superior Court Judge James F. McHugh III concluded the report was not exempt and ordered that it be publicly disclosed. The teachers’ association appealed. The Appeals Court ordered that the case be remanded back to Superior Court for an in camera review. In October 1997, McHugh once again concluded the report was a matter of public record and the teachers’ association appealed again. The Appeals Court agreed with the trial judge that report was subject to public disclosure. It concluded, however, that all identifying references to both the students and teacher involved should be redacted. The SJC then granted the teachers’ association’s request for further review of the case.

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