More than a month after the abrupt, previously unexplained resignation of their new superintendent, taxpayers of the Hamilton Southeastern School District in Fishers, Ind., found out what happened.

Sexually explicit documents, described by the school district as “male porn images,” were discovered last August along with other explicit images of both sexes on the district laptop computer used by then-Superintendent Robert Herrold, the Associated Press (AP) has reported. A member of the district’s technology staff reportedly discovered the material while servicing the superintendent’s computer.

Herrold resigned just 11 weeks after he’d assumed the superintendency, but both he and his school board refused to offer any explanation, except to say Herrold had violated the district’s internet policy.

It took a county prosecutor’s inquiry, Freedom of Information actions by two newspapers, and the ruling of the state’s public access counselor to pry loose the rest of the story. Herrold has declined to comment, and the Hamilton Southeastern school board initially sought to avoid explaining what happened by saying it was a personnel matter and, thus, exempt from the state’s public access laws.

In his resignation letter, Herrold said he regretted leaving the post and apologized to school board members “for all of the trouble and embarrassment I have caused.”

Asked why he was leaving, Herrold declined to explain. “I think silence is best,” he told the local press. He denied he had used school computers for gambling, but refused to comment further when asked if he had accessed sexually related material.

The district’s internet policy prohibits handling sexually explicit material; accessing another person’s eMail; or violating copyright laws, among other rules.

When news organizations in Indiana requested access to the computer files, the school board instead asked county prosecutor Sonia Leerkamp to launch an inquiry to determine whether criminal wrongdoing had occurred. Ultimately Leerkamp determined the superintendent had done nothing illegal; then she, too, refused to comment further.

Two days after Leerkamp was asked to investigate, police impounded two computers from the district and turned them over to a federal crime lab. The Daily Ledger of Fishers and the Indianapolis Star filed Freedom of Information requests with the district following the superintendent’s resignation.

After Leerkamp announced that no criminal charges would be filed, the newspapers again requested the files, and Anne O’Connor, the state’s public access counselor, was called in to decide whether the records were to be considered public or private. All parties in the matter, including Herrold, agreed to abide by O’Connor’s decision.

The school district’s attorney, Brad Cook, had said previously that release of the records would have a devastating impact on Herrold’s reputation. Cook argued that the documents were personal and could not be released to the public.

Said Interim Superintendent Charles Leonard, “We think this may fall in the ‘personal records’ area.”

Regardless, O’Connor ruled Oct. 27 that the internet records must be made public.

“Information that constitutes the electronic evidence of access to internet sites on a public agency’s equipment is a public record,” O’Connor wrote. “There is no exception to disclosure making this information either confidential or otherwise nondisclosable.”

Leonard began making the information public moments after he was informed of O’Connor’s statement.

Herrold used a school-owned laptop computer to view sexually explicit material over a period of about one week in August, according to documents released by the district, AP reported.

School officials released 198 pages of material that included records of web sites visited, computer “cookie” files, and the contents of Herrold’s “My Documents” folder. Cookies are small data files that contain information about the computer’s interaction with the internet. The files are stored on the machine’s hard drive and are accessed when the user connects to a web site.

School business manager Mike Reuter said there is no way to tell which of the various sites Herrold actually visited. All sites linked to a particular web page viewed by Herrold would appear on the document, Reuter said, whether Herrold visited the links or not.

A school technology employee discovered the files in August when he was working on another problem with the school computers, Assistant Superintendent Rich Hogue said.

“No one has examined each one of these sites,” said Hogue. A school district employee reportedly had viewed one site to confirm it was in violation of the district’s internet-use policy.

Mike Peterson, president of the school board, was notified of Herrold’s possible internet-policy violation in August. Peterson said administrators then learned of rumors in the community about Herrold’s internet activity. He said officials feared people would contact the news media with their suspicions.

“Everything was starting to come out; it appeared it would become public,” Peterson said. “I called the meeting quickly, because I didn’t want it to become public before the board had an opportunity to discuss it.”

He said the tone at the Sept. 18 emergency meeting was one of “shock and surprise.”

“At that point, we wanted to hear [Superintendent Herrold’s] explanation and see where it would go from there. The tone was not ‘We’re going to call him in and fire him,'” Peterson said.

But when Herrold was asked to join the emergency board meeting, “He said, ‘No, I won’t go in.'” Herrold then submitted his resignation, Peterson said.

Hamilton Southeastern Schools

http://www.hse.k12.in.us

Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office

http://www.co.hamilton.in.us/Gov/Prosec/prosec.htm

Town of Fishers, Ind., Web Site

http://www.fishers.in.us