FAYETTEVILLE -- A judge Friday ordered records released, with some minor redactions, relating to former Superintendent Matthew Wendt's firing.
Circuit Judge Tom Cooper denied a motion for a restraining order by "Jane Doe," identified in other court records as Shae Lynn Newman, who contended her right to privacy should outweigh the public's interest in the documents.
"We're pleased with Judge Cooper's ruling," said Rusty Turner, editor of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "It will give citizens a chance to evaluate not only the circumstances that led to Dr. Wendt's firing, but also the way the school board handled the complaint against him and the subsequent investigation of his conduct. Patrons of the Fayetteville School District should have access to that kind of information."
Newman claims she was the target of sexual harassment by Wendt when she worked with him at the School District. The School Board unanimously voted to terminate Wendt's contract June 18.
Newman sued the district in July to prevent release of Wendt's personnel records requested by the newspaper and others under the state's Freedom of Information Act. The newspaper's request to intervene in the case was granted Aug. 9.
The newspaper asked for records forming the basis of the School Board's decision to suspend and fire Wendt.
Cooper gave the School District five business days to make redactions and release the records. Cooper said the identities of Newman's immediate family and some other people not directly involved, should be redacted, but her name will not be redacted.
Cooper, who heard the case after local judges recused, acknowledged the content of the records will be embarrassing to Newman but said disclosure is necessary for the public to understand what happened.
"Is it not in the public interest to know if she was a victim or willing participant," Cooper asked. "If you start taking people out (of the records), you don't get a clear picture of why he was terminated."
Suzanne Clark, Newman's attorney, said an appeal of Cooper's ruling is unlikely.
Clark argued Friday the decision will re-victimize her client and could have a chilling effect on the reporting of sexual harassment by others in the future.
"She's being punished for bringing a complaint," Clark argued at one point.
Missy McJunkins Duke, an attorney for the School District, said some of the records in question were provided to the district by Clark before Wendt was fired.
"The records she now wants sealed are the very records she provided to the district," Duke told the judge. "They became public records when she provided them to us."
The records from Clark were given to the board, but Duke said she cannot say how they influenced the board's decision. Clark released some of the information to the media in a press release June 14.
The board fired Wendt for breach of contract by violating district policy. He violated the policy through his derogatory and offensive conduct and communication with a female subordinate employee, Susan Kendall, a lawyer with the Kendall Law Firm in Rogers and the School Board's legal counsel, said the night he was fired.
Wendt identified Newman as his accuser in a lawsuit he filed against her earlier this month. The lawsuit seeks not less than $850,000 in damages from Newman, claiming she intentionally and improperly interfered with the business expectancy between Wendt and his employer and her actions led to his termination.
In addition, Wendt contends he can no longer get a job as a school administrator.
Cooper referenced Wendt's lawsuit in deciding not to redact Newman's name from the records he ordered released.
The ruling may also resolve a second lawsuit filed by Russell Racop, a Little Rock blogger, seeking similar records. That lawsuit names John L Colbert, the district's new superintendent, in his official capacity as custodian of records. Colbert has never been served, Duke said.
NW News on 08/18/2018
Print Headline: Judge orders redacted Wendt records released