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The Beaufort County School District might not have revealed as much as the law requires when asked for information about Hilton Head Island High School's football program and head coach Tim Singleton, an S.C. Press Association attorney says.
The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, citing the state's Freedom of Information Act, asked to view recent email exchanges between Seahawks athletics director Mark Karen, principal Amanda O'Nan and the district's chief instructional services officer Sean Alford, whose duties include supervision of the district's athletics departments.
The district provided paper copies of those emails Monday, with some information blacked out. District spokesman Jim Foster, citing federal law and a section of the FOIA describing information exempt from disclosure requirements, said revealing that information would have violated the privacy of students and employees.
But Press Association attorney Jay Bender said the S.C. Court of Appeals, in its 2004 decision in Burton v. York Sheriff's Department, made it "quite clear" public employees have no such right when it comes to their job performance.
"When it involves possible disciplinary action against an employee, the employee is not allowed to assert a privacy interest, and a public body cannot withhold it on grounds that its release would be an unreasonable invasion of privacy," Bender said.
Asked to explain several specific redactions, Foster would not say if any of them concerned disciplinary action against Singleton, only that the material would affect "employee privacy."
In unredacted portions of the emails, Karen says Singleton disregarded his order not to play several transfer students in an Aug. 12 scrimmage because their eligibility had not yet been cleared by the S.C. High School League.
Karen also recommended several sanctions the school could impose upon itself, to demonstrate its contrition, before the High School League ruled on possible infractions that were self-reported. Unredacted portions do not mention possible punishment for Singleton, but two paragraphs are blacked out.
Singleton was subsequently suspended from football duties for two weeks.
Foster has indicated the emails were vetted by the district's legal team at least twice and said he and attorneys made final redactions late Friday afternoon.
"In all of this, we are being guided by our personal and professional ethics and by doing right by everyone involved," Foster said. "We don't doubt for a minute the newspaper is doing the same thing. We think this is a professional disagreement between two organizations that both sincerely believe they're acting in the public interest."