BETTENDORF, Iowa — Editor's Note: The video above is from May 25.
Four eastern Iowa media organizations are joining a nonprofit media rights group in filing a lawsuit against the Bettendorf school board and other officials after they blocked journalists from covering a meeting about school violence that was attended by hundreds of people.
The lawsuit filed Monday by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, the Quad-City Times and television stations KWQC, WQAD and WHBF asks a state court judge to find the school district in violation of Iowa’s open meetings law and to issue an injunction prohibiting the school board from violating the statute in the future.
The lawsuit also asks the court to fine members of the board who took part in the meeting held May 25 that was attended by as many as 300 people, the majority of the school board and Superintendent Michelle Morse.
The law allows courts to order damages of between $100 and $500 and in cases where it’s proven the officials present knowingly participated in a violation, and fines of $1,000 to $2,500 can be levied.
The meeting was held the day after an elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where 21 students and teachers were killed. It was held to address the violence that has taken place at a middle school in the district and other safety issues, including mounting complaints from parents during the recently completed academic year about how school officials responded to reports of rowdy behavior that left some students and their parents fearful.
School employees posted at the doors prevented reporters and photographers from entering the meeting.
In a letter sent to Morse and school board president Rebecca Eastman a week after the meeting, the Iowa FOI Council and managers of the news companies expressed “profound disappointment” with Bettendorf officials’ decision to exclude journalists.
“The topic discussed on the evening of Wednesday, May 25, was one of the fundamental responsibilities of the Bettendorf Community School District — ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the district’s 4,700 students during each school day,” the letter stated.
Randy Evans, the executive director of the Iowa FOI Council, said the authors of Iowa’s open meetings law recognized the important work journalists do in informing the public about issues facing government and potential solutions. Journalists can't serve that role when they can't attend meetings, Evans said.
Celeste Miller, the Director of Communications for Bettendorf Community School District, later released a statement provided by the district. School officials say that they do not believe the media's claims do not have validity.
The full statement reads:
"The safety and well-being of those within our schools remain a top priority as we welcome back students and staff for the 2022/2023 school year. We thank everyone who participated in the District’s parent Work Session on May 25, 2022. We had approximately 320 participants and gathered a great deal of feedback.
"The posters created at the Work Session are available on the District’s website at https://bit.ly/MS-May25WorkSession. Prior to the Work Session, some parents and staff had brought forward concerns in relation to student conduct. The concerns were shared with the Board and were the subject of local media stories.
"The May 25 Work Session was to provide a forum for parents, staff and interested community members to come together to discuss with each other the District’s strengths, weaknesses, solutions, and barriers. The intent was to facilitate open discussion and to allow participants to share freely about their students.
"The District was informed today that the Iowa Freedom of Information Council along with local media outlets have filed a lawsuit and issued a Press Release claiming the Bettendorf Community School District is in violation of Iowa’s open meeting laws, claiming a failure to allow journalists to document the Work Session.
"We do not believe there is any validity to the claims. The District has presented the information obtained at the Work Session to the School Board at its open meetings and will continue to do so. We remain committed to an open process in addressing concerns and appreciate the input as we continue to work on supports and improvements for our students and staff. We look forward to the start of a new school year!."
Watch | Bettendorf School Board responds to middle school safety concerns