When our children leave for school, a parent’s number one concern is that they are safe. But there’s so much we don’t know about what is actually happening in classrooms, hallways, or on the playground. With bullying incidents running rampant, growing mental health concerns, school shootings, and adolescent suicide rates at record highs, our children’s safety hangs in the balance. That’s leading parents to ask: What is school doing to keep our children safe?
For two years, Terrie Chumchal’s 13-year-old son suffered bullying from other students at his Texas school, much of it on account of his Korean-American heritage. One horrifying assault even left her son with a ruptured eardrum. Like any good mom, Terrie wants to keep her son safe, so she started asking the school district some very simple questions. But the school district refused to answer unless Terrie paid thousands of dollars in fees — even though they’re required to answer those questions under the law.
Terrie asked the Joshua Independent School District how widespread the bullying problem was. She submitted a public records request for the number of bullying, incident, assault, police, and grievance reports filed with the district between 2015 and 2022. In response, the district’s lawyers told Terrie that accessing this simple information would cost $7,111.12 in public records fees. That’s against the law, so Terrie got help from a volunteer attorney with the Goldwater Institute.
"Parents shouldn’t have to pay thousands of dollars just to access simple information about what’s happening in their children’s schools,” her attorney Warren Norred says. “Texas law is clear on the matter—and I intend to fight this excessive public records fee and defend Terrie’s right to access public information."
Unfortunately, Terrie’s case isn’t unusual. School districts around the country charge outrageous public records fees to scare parents away from asking about what’s happening in their children’s schools. But parents have the right to ask questions and to receive answers.
Terrie just wants to keep her son safe — and she wants answers from the school district.
“We deserve to have insight as to how significant these issues are within our district,” Terrie said. “Don’t I have the right to know what’s going on in my own child’s public school?”
State public records laws give citizens the power to get public information from state and local governments, and that generally includes public school districts. That can include information about policies the school district has to keep children safe, school curriculum, and other public information. If a parent uses these laws to ask a school for information about its policies or procedures — and if the school refuses to give answers or charges exorbitant fees for the information — the law is often on the parent’s side. The public records process begins with a public records request, and you can learn more about that process here.
When it comes to policies about bullying or other issues affecting your child’s health and safety, it might surprise you to learn that there’s not one national policy, or even one statewide policy, governing school districts. In fact, every school district will have different kinds of policies on the books. A lot of this information may be available on your school district’s website. If not, you can even start your search simply by calling your school district and asking for the information you’re looking for. You can also file a public records request, just like Terrie Chumchal did when she was trying to find out information on bullying at her child’s school.
It’s every parent’s right to direct the upbringing of their children, and that can include getting information about your child’s education. It’s easy to get started, and parents don’t have to file a formal public information request right off the bat. In many cases, you can find the information you’re looking for simply by looking on a school website or calling your district to ask for the information. In most cases, you’ll find that the district will be happy to give you the information you’re looking for. But if the school district refuses, that’s when you may need to file a public records request, just like Terrie Chumchal did when she was trying to find out information on bullying at her child’s school.
There are many questions a parent could ask about bullying policies at a school district. Some questions include:
More specifically, a parent could ask for communications regarding bullying at their school. For example, a parent could ask for emails written by the principal with the keyword “bullying.” A parent could narrow the request and ask for emails mentioning the keyword “bullying” between specific dates. However, keep in mind that a school may redact information or refuse to provide private information.
When you ask your school district for information, it’s important to keep in mind that in most cases, district employees want to try to help you and want to do their job. As a parent asking questions, you should be reasonable in your request. If a district is not providing information , you might consider submitting a formal public records request.
A school district should generally respond to your request promptly, however, that time varies by state. Some state public records laws say “a reasonable amount of time.” Other state laws might say “within 10 days” or identify a specific deadline. A school district may also respond by saying that a request will cost money — in some cases, a small amount for the cost of copies, for example. That’s reasonable. But if a fee demand is excessive, you should review your state’s law here. If you believe your right to access public information may have been violated, you can contact the Goldwater Institute for assistance. Please be prepared to send the original records request, the district’s response, and any communications between you and the district.
Every citizen has a right to ask and receive public information from the government — that includes parents asking for public records from school districts.
Parents have the power to hold their public schools accountable. They can use public records laws to find out what their children are being taught, how their school is keeping their children safe, and how the school is spending money. Parents across the country are taking action and are asking their schools — you can too.