A Rockingham County, N.H., Superior Court judge has found the Exeter school district in contempt of court for destroying computer records that were involved in a lawsuit.

Judge Gillian Abramson ordered the district to pay legal fees and to reproduce internet history files for an Exeter parent who wanted to use them to determine whether students were visiting unsavory internet sites on school computers.

Abramson said the information in the deleted files “was unfavorable and embarrassing” to the district and that the deletions had occurred between the time the lawsuit was filed in June and the trial in September.

James Knight, a father of four whose children attended Exeter schools until recently, won a legal battle against the district in November when Abramson ordered officials to give Knight copies of the schools’ internet history logs.

Knight, 44, wanted the logs because he didn’t think school officials were doing enough to keep pupils away from the web’s seedy side. He filed the suit after educators decided to use spot checks by teachers instead of filtering programs.

In court papers filed after the Nov. 2 verdict, the district said the requested files “no longer date back to 1998,” when the district first made internet access available to pupils. School officials said the deletions were part of standard maintenance.

Knight asked the court to sanction the district, saying officials deleted the files while they were subject to a lawsuit and failed to tell him or the judge.

In sanctioning the district, Abramson said officials’ explanations didn’t make sense.

“The court finds the [district’s] claims to be untenable and replete with contradictions,” she wrote, referring to differing testimony about when the deletions began. “None of the [district’s] explanations add up mathematically.”

School district officials maintained they thought Knight was seeking only current files, not old ones.

“The respondents’ defense is nothing more than a specious and transparent attempt to camouflage their actions,” she wrote. “The September trial on the merits was a lengthy evidentiary hearing and never once did the respondents share with the court that they had already deleted the very subject matter of the litigation.”

The trouble started in 1999, when Knight became concerned by school officials’ decision to monitor pupils’ web activities with supervision instead of software.

The programs, which have been criticized for their accuracy, block access to objectionable internet sites.

School officials said handing over such logs would violate the children’s privacy and federal law. They also questioned the reliability of filtering programs.

But the judge disagreed, saying the school could safeguard the privacy of individual students by deleting personal information from the records before giving them to Knight.

Links:

Exeter Regional Coorperative School District
http://www.ercsd.k12.nh.us