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School district sues special-ed advocate parents, allegedly harasses them — all over docs district released to them but now claims are 'confidential'

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Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools on Monday filed a lawsuit against two parents who advocate for special-needs students over documents the district released to them through a Freedom of Information Act request — and now say are "confidential."

What's more, the two mothers claim they were harassed and intimidated earlier this month by a law firm representing the district.

What are the details?

One of the lawsuit's defendants, Callie Oettinger, wrote about the ordeal Tuesday on her Special Education Action website.

Oettinger said the district "threatened legal action" against her and another parent, Debra Tisler, "in response to us exercising our first amendment rights and right to FOIA."

She explained that Tisler submitted a FOIA request to the district for "all outsourced counsel legal services invoices and paid legal services invoices from June 1, 2020, to August 12, 2021."

Oettinger said the point of the FOIA request was to get to the bottom of what both mothers saw as massive, long-running financial waste and mismanagement by the district.

In addition, she went on to say that since 2017 the district "has violated my family's privacy about a dozen times; has provided me personally identifiable information (PII) about over a thousand students, parents, and family members; and has provided PII to other parents about students who are not their own."

Documents arrive

Oettinger said on Sept. 10 the district contacted Tisler saying the "redacted" documents would be arriving in two large batches — and indeed, Tisler received "almost 1,500 pages of documents" and shared them with Oettinger.

But there was a big problem. Oettinger wrote in a previous post that the documents "breached the privacy of students, parents, and FCPS staff. The documents vary from being partially redacted to being entirely free of redactions." She added that the documents contained "unredacted information about Due Process Hearings and Equity and Employee Relations Complaints (including staff grievances and dismissals)" and other sensitive information.

So Oettinger said she and Tisler worked on contacting all the people noted in the documents who were affected by the breach. In addition, Oettinger said she "spoke with the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers (FCFT) and expressed my concerns that FCPS had shared extraordinarily sensitive information about FCPS teachers, to include grievances they filed, investigations into them, and dismissals."

What's more she added that "although the documents had been released two weeks prior, none of the individuals with whom we spoke had been contacted by FCPS about the breach."

'Banging on my door'

Oettinger said on Saturday "someone came to my home and started banging on my door. I was in the bathroom and stepped out in time to see the car drive up my pipestem driveway when I was walking downstairs. I thought it was an overly aggressive Amazon delivery person, finished walking downstairs, looked out the window and didn't see anything on our steps. Later that day, someone started banging again. Again, I didn't make it to the door in time to open it, but I saw the same car. That's when I started thinking we were being harassed."

Here's what she said happened Sunday:

"Later that day, my daughter was home alone when a 'scary man' started banging on the door. She ran up to her bedroom and started recording him and called me. She said he was banging, looking in windows, and taking pictures of our home. I raced home and called the police after I saw her video. I called the police because I recognized the car. It was the same car from the day before.

"My daughter got the guy's tags and the police ran the tags. I explained to the police what I thought was occurring. I was advised by the policeman that I have a right to say whatever I want, that I wasn't doing anything wrong. He said, too, that if we found anything in the documents that should be investigated, that we should bring it to the police station so that it could be given to a detective for investigation."

Warning letters

It appears the individual coming to Oettinger's house was attempting to deliver warning letters from a school district attorney and another one from an outside firm, Hunton Andrews Kurth.

They wanted all the "sensitive" documents released under FOIA returned, all mentions of them removed from the internet, and contact information for all those with whom they shared the documents. Failure to comply, the letters said, would result in legal action.

Oettinger offered that it makes her wonder "if this isn't about privacy breaches, but perhaps about some of the questionable information in the documents."

What's more, they discovered Monday that "someone posted all of the documents to Fairfax Underground – without any redactions."

What's going on?

Oettinger said she got a Sunday phone call from Ryan Bates of the Hunton Andrews Kurth law firm and that an injunction request from him claimed the school board "faces a high risk of irreparable harm if the injunction is not granted."

In this fast-moving drama, a lawsuit against Oettinger and Tisler was filed Monday in Fairfax County Circuit Court seeking the return of the "confidential" documents and damages.

Anything else?

As for district spending concerns, Oettinger had the following to say about what the FOIA documents reveal:

"... if you really dig into the invoices, you find a school district that has outsourced its jobs to high-priced lawyers. For the life of me, I can't understand why FCPS is paying someone who is paid a rate of hundreds of dollars an hour to write school newsletters, take notes during school board meetings, and write motions for school board members. Is there not someone in-house who can do this at a lower rate?"

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