FORT COLLINS, Colo. - Sister station KMGH's investigation has found a Colorado school system, Poudre School District, willfully destroyed records involving a special education student, in an attempt to keep them from his family that has cost taxpayers more than $200,000.
The findings raise serious ethical questions for Poudre schools (PSD) and raise questions for parents about whether they can trust the district responsible for the education of their children.
- Services "overlooked?" -
Nine-year-old Isaac Starr needs a range of special programs and skilled professionals to help him develop.
"He has a variety of disabilities, the primary one would be autism," said Isaac's father, Ephraim. "He's a very courageous little boy."
Under federal law, school districts are required to provide programs and professionals through an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. When the Starr family moved to Fort Collins, Colo., three years ago, Ephraim and his wife, Donna, wanted the Poudre School District to implement elements of Isaac's existing IEP from his previous school in California.
"We've seen what didn't work and we saw what worked," Ephraim said. "And there were a number of really important things in that plan that we thought they overlooked or didn't include."
But even before the move, Ephraim claims PSD resisted providing the services his son needed. And once Isaac enrolled, his father says the boy started to regress.
"He would throw 45-minute tantrums, things he had done when he was several years younger, that now started resurfacing again," said Starr. "He wasn't doing well in school. Things were getting much worse."
The family's relationship with school district administration was getting worse, too. The Starrs came to see Sarah Belleau, Director of Integrated Services for PSD and the head of the district's special education department, as an adversary in getting Isaac the services he needed.
"They weren't taking into account our points of view as his parents," said Starr.
- "I do not want this put in writing" -
So Starr, who is a corporate lawyer, decided to find out what was happening behind the scenes. On March 20, 2011, he emailed a request for Isaac's education records to the district, then submitted a more formal request the next day under the Colorado Open Records Act. Starr wanted to see all records, including emails and paper files, about his son and his family.
Poudre School District refused to turn over some records, but what the Starrs did eventually get stunned them.
"They were basically telling each other to be sure to delete records," Starr said.
And not just any records, but those specifically involving his family. Documents obtained by sister station KMGH's CALL7 Investigators show the deletion started even before Isaac was enrolled in PSD -- and it all emanated from Sarah Belleau.
In a December 9, 2010 email to her Special Education Coordinator, Belleau wrote:
Please delete this e-mail when done…
Please ask all involved staff to delete AND destroy any e-mail or paper records related to this family. When they delete the e-mail, they need to then "empty the trash" Please have them do this immediately. All other records with the exception of the latest plan should be destroyed -- shred. The reason is to protect against an Open Records Request.
Thank you for doing this and for verbally communicating this with staff. I do not want this put in writing.
"I'd never seen a record like that in my life. I didn't know what to think," said Starr. "I felt like, so not only do we have every reason to be distrustful of these people, but by virtue of their approach to our son's special education they were intentionally destroying the very records on which we would like to rely to make sure his education was what he deserved."
Steve Zansberg, a First Amendment media attorney who represented the Starrs in their case against Poudre, and the President of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said he'd never seen anything like it, either.
"The intent was to deny access to parents of a child with special needs to records they are legally entitled to inspect. That's unequivocal, "Zansberg said. "If I were a parent of a child with special needs in the Poudre School District, the conduct of the individuals, and the school district in this case, would cause me great concern. And I would have deep and profound suspicions about that administration."
Additional emails obtained by the CALL7 Investigators show Isaac's principal at Bacon Elementary, Joe Horky, also got involved. In a March 23, 2011 email -- just days after Starr's requests -- Horky refers to Sarah Belleau and Isaac Starr only by their initials, but goes on to say that Belleau "thought that student initials may not be the only/best answer to our email issue. Please creatively think of something we may all be able to use as a 'code' word - haha!!" -- apparently looking for ways to keep their emails from turning up searches for any future records requests. Horky goes on to write:
"Delete your message!"
"Delete your deleted!"
"Delete your sent!"
Still other emails between Poudre School District employees refer to the Starrs as "crazy people" and read, "Just put it in your I.S. file and strap on your waders!" and "Bring it on!!" The Starrs said it confirmed their fears that some of the people in charge of Isaac's care saw his parents as enemies instead of allies.
- "Everybody was deleting" -
Gloria Hohrein was the Special Education Coordinator to whom Belleau sent her initial order to instruct the staff to destroy records. Carrying out that order ultimately cost Hohrein her job, and she now lives in Utah with her husband, where she is back in the classroom as a special education teacher.
CALL7 Investigator John Ferrugia asked Hohrein what Belleau's concern was about Isaac's records, and Ephraim Starr.
"That he would bring a lawsuit against the school district," Hohrein said. "Because he wasn't getting the services he wanted."
Hohrein said she followed Belleau's instructions in that December 9, 2010 email, but printed a copy for herself, just in case.
"I was concerned that something would come of this and I would be blamed," she said.
Eventually, that is exactly what happened. Hohrein said the December 9, 2010 email from Belleau was only the beginning. She said the effort to destroy records about the family continued even after Ephraim Starr requested records.
Minutes after Starr sent his email on March 20, 2011, Belleau sent her own email to district staff, notifying them that the Starrs had made "an official records request" and asking them to gather "everything (really everything)" they had on Isaac by the end of the week.
But 24 minutes after that first email, Belleau sent another -- with a very different message:
I just want to remind you that deleting any unnecessary e-mails and then "emptying the deleted folder" is an important step to take.
Then eight minutes after that:
"Please remember to delete your sent mail as well."
Hohrein said that prompted staff member to destroy more records.
"Everybody was deleting and they were deleting the deleted," she said.
Hohrien went one step further -- to make sure she was thoroughly deleting the emails as Belleau had instructed. She said a PSD employee in the IT department explained how to delete her email permanently from the server, and told her it was fine to do so, because the relevant emails involving the Starrs had already been saved. But Hohrein said that is why she lost her job.
"You didn't withhold anything from the district regarding the Starrs," asked Ferrugia.
"No, I did not," Hohrein said.
"You gave them all of this material," he asked.
"Yes," she said.
Hohrein said when she told her boss, Belleau immediately went to the district's legal department. Hohrein was put on administrative leave, and eventually fired. She lost much of her retirement, and she and her husband were forced to move out of state, where she took a lower-paying teaching position. She was devastated.
"Being fired because I did what I was told to do, I didn't do anything that anybody else didn't do, I never knew how I was gonna get over that," Hohrein said. "I did therapy, I tried everything, you know. I spent days just in bed. I didn't get up, I didn't do anything. I felt totally defeated by it all."
Belleau not only kept her job, in 2012, the mayor of Fort Collins honored her as Employee of the Year.
- Legal fight continues -
When the Starr family sued the Poudre School District under the Colorado Opens Record Act, the judge ultimately found that Belleau's December 9, 2010 order to destroy records did not violate CORA, though he left open the question of whether it constituted spoliation of evidence. But the judge did find the district illegally withheld records, and PSD was forced to pay the Starrs $122,577.74 for their attorney fees. The CALL7 Investigators have learned the case also cost taxpayers at least $56,609.62 in payments to an outside data recovery provider, and tens of thousands of dollars to an outside law firm. But the district has refused to provide records that would show taxpayers exactly how much was spent on the case.
Both Belleau and PSD Superintendent Sandra Smyser also refused to talk with the CALL7 Investigators, despite repeated requests for interviews.
For now, Ephraim and Donna Starr say their son Isaac is getting the services they believe are essential. But in January 2014, the Poudre School District sued them -- filing a complaint with the state under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, over 26 tests they say the district wants to perform on Isaac. The Starrs had agreed to 12 of them, and asked for more information about the other 14 before they gave consent. The District has again hired an outside law firm to handle this suit but will not disclose how much the firm is being paid.
For the Starr family, it is the latest chapter in a battle now in its fourth year. The District believes it is dealing with an unreasonable family. But Ephraim believes the destruction of records raises questions that should concern every parent in the district.
"It's not merely unethical, unconscionable, it's fundamentally corrupt, I think," Starr said. "Parents throughout the district ought to be concerned that what the school district is telling parents is not the same as what's actually happening."