Q: In light of recent tragic events, we are getting a lot of open records requests for our school and District safety plans, emergency operations, maps of the school, etc. How do we respond when we receive a request like this? Do we have to release this information?
A: The Texas Public Information Act (“TPIA”) excludes from disclosure many documents/records regarding a school’s safety operations plans and emergency response, protecting them as confidential under provisions of both the Texas Government and Education Codes.
Generally, the TPIA (Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code) makes all government records subject to public disclosure under the general idea that a governmental entity, which serves the public, should be open and transparent in its operations. However, there are a number of exceptions to this rule.
The TPIA, in Section 552.101, states, “Information is excepted from [required public disclosure] if it is information considered to be confidential by law,” such as by statute. Two statutes that specifically make emergency/safety information of a public school district confidential include the Texas Homeland Security Act and certain provisions of the Texas Education Code.
The Texas Homeland Security Act, found in the Texas Government Code Chapter 418, protects a variety of government information, including information that would threaten the safety and security of governmental entities. It also protects certain information that is maintained by the government for the purpose of “preventing, detecting, responding to, or investigating an act of terrorism or related criminal activity.” Similarly, the Texas Education Code Section 37.108 makes confidential a school’s Emergency Operations Plan (“EOP”) and any information “collected, developed or produced during a safety and security audit.”
Many of the safety and security documents maintained by a school fall into categories of information protected by either the Texas Homeland Security Act and/or the Texas Education Code. Examples of such safety sensitive information protected from public disclosure might include:
Multihazard Emergency Operations Plans
Maps of the interior and/or exists of any school or district building
Results of safety and security audits
Security videos which would show a school or district building layout
As is the case in all instances where a TPIA request is received for information the District believes to be confidential, the decision to withhold the information cannot be made by the school district alone. Instead, when a school district receives an open records request for documents that contain safety or security information about the District or one of its campuses, the District must request an Attorney General opinion within ten (10) business days of receipt of the request. It must then send additional briefing materials explaining the reasons for its request to withhold the information no later than fifteen (15) days after receipt of the request. Your school district’s legal counsel can assist in determining whether an Attorney General opinion is needed and help in drafting the requests for opinion citing the relevant legal authority.