School superintendent apologizes for privacy breach

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Last week, Dr. Joseph J. Roy, superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District, issued a public apology after the district’s solicitor inadvertently breached the privacy of a non-binary trans student and their parents in a court filing.

“Our solicitor erroneously and regretfully included, in a voluminous recent filing, personally identifiable information,” Roy said, in an Oct. 28 statement. “On behalf of the district, I apologize to the student and the student’s family for this error.” 

“Jane Doe,” and “Roe” are plaintiffs in an antibias lawsuit against BASD and Colonial Intermediate Unit 20 — an educational agency that provides special-needs services to students with disabilities at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, Pa.

On August 25, U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted plaintiffs’ request for anonymity. But on Oct. 16, BASD solicitor John E. Freund 3d inadvertently filed a document that contained Roe’s full name, address, date of birth, student ID number, sensitive medical information and sensitive educational information. In addition, the document disclosed the name, address, mobile phone number and work phone number of Jane Doe and her husband. The document was available online for 12 days before Smith ordered the clerk of courts to seal the document and six other documents filed by Freund.

In his apology, Roy asserted that “the district has employed Mr. Freund and the KingSpry Law firm for many years and have not experienced a similar error over those years. The Bethlehem Area School District is viewed as a leading school district in the Lehigh Valley in respecting and protecting the rights of our LGBTQ students, parents and staff — which makes this error all the more regrettable.”

Doe and Roe’s lawsuit, which was filed in March, alleges that Roe was the victim of anti-trans bias and “torment” while receiving educational and counseling services provided by CIU20 at Freedom High. Doe and Roe are seeking an unspecified amount in damages. Efforts to settle the highly-contentious lawsuit have been unavailing, according to court records.

Roy also expressed his belief that BASD shouldn’t be a defendant in the case. “Finally, I feel compelled to note that our district’s sole role in this lawsuit is that we provide the room where the student’s program occurs,” Roy’s statement concluded. “As the district’s filings make clear, the student resides in another school district and the Colonial Intermediate Unit 20 staff provide the programming for the student. BASD staff do not interact with the student. As a result, BASD should not be included as a respondent and we will continue to seek to be dismissed from the case.”

BASD school board members had no comment for this story. An attorney for Doe and Roe also had no comment.

An Oct. 30 email from Freund emphasized that the error was inadvertent, made during the course of attaching exhibits to a legal brief. “This incident was a documentary oversight, and any suggestion otherwise is deeply troubling,” Freund’s email stated. 

Freund’s email went on to note: “My firm and I take great pride in the work and support we have done and continue to do with and for the LGBTQ community. We have fully cooperated with [PGN] in the past on other cases we have handled involving LGBTQ matters. I am most disappointed and offended by the insinuation that this was done with any malice or intent to harm Plaintiff or flout the court’s order because nothing could be further from the truth.  We can and do support LQBTQ rights while at the same time defend our clients from meritless lawsuits. That is our job.” 

Pennsylvania Youth Congress, an advocacy group for LGBTQ youth, issued the following statement: “Whether it was incompetence or cruelty, this is an egregious violation of privacy. Any minor expects and deserves confidentiality in a legal suit. This is certainly essential to LGBT youth and their private personal and medical information, of which public disclosure may subject them to harm. When the privacy of LGBT youth is violated in this manner, the court system becomes a danger to be avoided — discouraging them from pursuing litigation and perpetuating the cycles of disparities.

“The court should not only reprimand the lawyers involved, but severely punish them in this case. Separately, the lawyers involved should be investigated for potentially violating the newly-adopted Pennsylvania Rules for Professional Conduct, which prohibits in Rule 8.4(g) ‘in the practice of law, by words or conduct, knowingly…engage in harassment…based upon…gender identity or expression.’”