In what could be a major shift in Ohio’s public records law, the names of children involved in hundreds of school bus accidents across the state each year would be withheld from disclosure on police reports.
Republican State Reps. Jeff Rezabek of Clayton and Peter Hambly of Brunswick are co-sponsoring a bill to exempt from public disclosure information on minors who are passengers in school bus accidents.
Medina resident William Horton asked Hambly to change the public records law after his 8-year-old son was a passenger in a school bus accident in May 2016. Horton was alarmed to learn that personal injury lawyers obtained his son’s name, date of birth, address and phone number from a traffic crash report.
“I felt that the law must be changed because if anyone can get this private information, what would stop criminals, fraudsters, pedophiles and other people who prey on children from getting this information,” Horton said in written testimony supporting House Bill 8.
The bill has support from the Ohio School Boards Association and others but it is strongly opposed by the Ohio News Media Association, which says it’ll set a dangerous precedent of redacting information from routine police reports on traffic accidents. Those reports provide basic details on what happened, where, when and who was involved.
Ohio’s Open Records law, which provides for scrutiny of state and local government documents, generally presumes openness, unless there is a compelling reason to close off access.
Rezabek says there is a compelling reason: disclosure puts minors at risk of possible identity theft.
“We are just trying to close that loophole, to make sure children identities aren’t stolen,” Rezabek said. He could not provide data on how often thieves steal children’s identities by requesting access to police incident reports on school bus crashes.
Between 2012 and 2016, there have been 6,606 crashes involving school buses, leading to 16 deaths and 2,317 injuries, according to the Ohio Highway Patrol.
Journalists often use police incident reports to gather information and reach out to victims and witnesses to find out what happened for accurate, timely news stories.
In November 2016, six elementary school students were killed and several injured in Tennessee when their bus driver was speeding and talking on a cell phone. Public records released by the school district showed students had complained about his dangerous driving before the accident.
Hetzel said it’s a “fool’s errand” to try to shield the school bus crash information since it’ll likely spread quickly on social media channels.
“In many cases, children’s names will be on the neighborhood Facebook page or other social media outlets in a matter of minutes — often with inflated and inaccurate information of names and extent of injuries,” he wrote to Ohio News Media Association members.
Rezabek maintains that journalists and any other member of the public could still obtain information on the minors by requesting it from the local school district. He noted, though, that the release policies may vary within Ohio’s 600-plus districts.
So, why should minors’ information only be protected when they’re involved in school bus crashes, as opposed to all traffic accidents? Rezabek said he’s taking it one step at a time.
House Bill 8 is scheduled on Wednesday to receive its third hearing.