The lawyer for a group of John F. Kennedy High School students suing the school over the 2019 graduation scandal is asking a judge to force the school’s governing charter board to turn over evidence, like student records, that are typically barred from disclosure under federal privacy laws.
In a motion filed on Tuesday, attorney Suzette Bagneris said the lawsuit has been stalled for nearly a year because Kennedy’s charter board — the New Beginnings Schools Foundation — has not responded to any of the plaintiffs’ requests for records, citing the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects student records.
According to Bagneris’ Tuesday court filing, the issue last came up in court in the fall, and Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Robin Giarrusso instructed the plaintiffs and New Beginnings to negotiate a FERPA waiver form to mail to Kennedy students and their families. But since then, two sides have been unable to reach an agreement on a form.
“As a result of an inability to resolve this issue, absolutely NO DISCOVERY RESPONSES have been provided to the plaintiffs by NBSF,” the filing says.
Bagneris is asking Giarrusso to approve the plaintiffs’ suggested waiver form and records production procedure.
In a separate but related filing on Tuesday, Bagneris asked Giarrusso to order New Beginnings to preserve all records in its possession, saying that such an order is imperative since the group is poised to hand over control of its two remaining schools. Bagneris argues the charter group has “exclusive control” of evidence and that state law compels them to preserve it. She said they have not produced records, claiming student record privacy protections, according to the filing.
The filings come just two weeks before Kennedy’s nonprofit charter group, the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, will turn in its charters for Kennedy and its other school, Pierre A. Capdau Charter School. One month after their May 2019 graduation, nearly half of the class learned they hadn’t been eligible to graduate. New Beginnings voted to surrender the schools to new operators as the scandal continued to unfold last summer.
The nonprofit will still exist come July 1, but it will no longer run schools. That is part of attorney Suzette Bagneris’ concern.
“The change in management and operation of Kennedy places Plaintiffs in a vulnerable position with regard to evidence preservation,” Bagneris writes, arguing that the group has known about the lawsuit for nearly a year and should know it must preserve evidence.
New Beginnings’ student records are key to Bagneris’ case. The 2019 graduation scandal — in which about half the members of the senior class found out they were ineligible to graduate — resulted in large part from poor and inaccurate record-keeping, as well as potentially altered records.
Darnette Daniels, the mother of then 17-year-old Tayler was the lead plaintiff in the original suit, which Bagneris has proposed as a class action. Daniels alleged that her daughter had been wrongly led to believe she could graduate a year early by taking courses online. The courses weren’t properly supervised, and didn’t count for credit, she told The Lens. That was one of many problems at the school that left nearly half the senior class ineligible to graduate.
In a text message Wednesday, Daniels said the last year has “been really trying” and the “mental stress for Tayler and I behind all of this, has put a strain on our mother and daughter relationship. We’re working on her depression and anger daily.”
Tayler did not participate in Kennedy’s graduation ceremony this month because she participated in the one in 2019 — when she thought she’d actually graduated. Her mother said she’s still working toward completing her diploma, which she hopes to finish by the end of the month.
The lawsuit’s original proposed class included just the class of 2019 students who were directly affected and unable to graduate on time. But Bagneris has since expanded it to include all 2019 seniors and Kennedy students in other classes.
But the parties have yet to meet in court for a hearing on approving the suit as a class action. Along with the discovery problem, the case appears to have stalled in part due to partial court closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bagneris has requested necessary hearings be held via video conference.
The Orleans Parish School Board — originally named as a defendant — was dismissed from the case last fall, after its lawyer argued that it does not control the student records of its charter schools. New Beginnings tried to be dismissed from the suit as well, but Giarrusso denied the request and a state appeals court affirmed her ruling. The lawsuit also includes the Louisiana Department of Education.
New Beginnings did not respond to a request for comment.