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Judge: CCSD 'grossly negligent' for not saving videos of student's alleged injuries

Charleston County School District headquarters (WCIV)

A judge says the Charleston County School District was “grossly negligent” in failing to preserve video evidence of a student reportedly being injured on several occasions while under school supervision.

Circuit Judge Michael Nettles made the statement in a hearing Oct. 5, 2018 regarding the Charleston County School District reportedly not complying with public records laws in connection to a student’s alleged injuries while in the care of Liberty Hill Academy.

The student’s alleged injuries were suffered on four occasions between December 2017 and January 2018, according to a complaint filed by attorney Mark Peper Oct. 2. The child’s guardian hired Peper as legal counsel after the last alleged incident in January 2018.

Peper claims he soon afterward sent the school district a Freedom of Information Act request for documentary materials related to the student’s injuries, which would’ve included surveillance video he believes contained visual evidence of the four incidents.

Charleston County School District policy is for video recordings to be stored for at least 10 days, and indefinitely longer if necessary when an incident is reported or a request to view or copy a video is made.

Peper sent the original FOIA request for the video on Jan. 23, 2018. The last reported incident occurred on Jan. 18, 2018, five days earlier — within the 10-day window the district is required to store video footage.

Peper also claims the child’s guardian reported each incident resulting in injuries to school officials in a “timely” fashion, which the attorney says again made the district responsible for preserving video evidence.

Peper claims CCSD officials never produced any video documentation. Then on September 20, 2018 — eight months after his initial request — Peper says CCSD officials told him no video existed.

CCSD reportedly told Peper too much time passed between the time of the incidents and the time of his FOIA request, so the video was lost, according to the Oct. 2 lawsuit.

Judge Nettles in his ruling Oct. 5 said the Liberty Hill’s principal upon notification of the incidents involving the student, and upon receipt of the FOIA request “had an obligation to comply.”

“In view of the fact that [the videos] were indeed destroyed, I'm going to find that [school officials] intentionally or at least […] were grossly negligent in not preserving the films, or the videos,” Nettles said.

Should the case ever go to trial, Nettles said a jury could “assume and presume [the videos] were unfavorable to the school district” since CCSD didn’t preserve them.

Nettles ultimately ruled CCSD must try to recover the videos and comply with Peper’s FOIA request.

CCSD communications director Erica Taylor provided a statement Thursday, Nov. 1, from the district’s legal counsel, saying the district would abide by Judge Nettles’ ruling.

The school district disputes some of the facts of case, however.

“CCSD denies intentionally destroying any information and assert that [Peper] was promptly notified of the fact that the school based video requested had been overwritten by the then current system,” a statement reads.

CCSD officials also say the video which would’ve recorded the incidents was from a school bus, not inside a school. Responsibility for maintaining bus video lies with Durham School Services, a third-party contractor that provides busing for Charleston County public schools.

School district attorneys say they weren't made aware Peper's request was pertaining to school bus video "until 5 minutes before [the Oct. 5] hearing started."

Peper does acknowledge in his Jan. 23, 2018, FOIA request that the location of the incidents may have been on a school bus, according to court documents.

In his complaint filed Oct. 2, he says the student suffered the injuries on the way “to, from and while attending classes at Liberty Hill Academy,” but does not specifically mention incidents happening on buses.

Judge Nettles didn’t address the distinction between video from school grounds versus video from on a bus in his Oct. 5 ruling.

No specifics of the child’s injuries or the circumstances leading to them are included in the Oct. 2 complaint.

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