An Orange County Superior Court judge agreed with a request by the Daily Pilot and Los Angeles Times this week to unseal a former Corona del Mar High School student’s lawsuit against the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.
The former student, now an adult attending college, sued the school district in May 2014, shortly after a number of students were expelled and otherwise disciplined following a grade-fixing scandal at the high school. The Times filed the motion on behalf of the Daily Pilot, which it owns, and KCBS-TV/KTLA-TV signed on.
“In the face of overwhelming constitutional authority requiring public access to court records and proceedings, Plaintiffs fall far short of the showing required to justify their extraordinary request to hold a secret trial and close all records from review by the public,” the Times argued.
Orange County Superior Court Judge John Gastelum agreed and on Tuesday granted the request to unseal the documents. However, the records were temporarily resealed while the plaintiff appeals Gastelum’s decision.
“I understand there are emotions on both sides but that’s not what I’m about,” Gastelum said. “The right to access in courtrooms is paramount.”
An attorney for the former CdM student argued that their client’s identity should remain anonymous since student records are confidential.
“I think it’s unfair to unseal the records some five years later,” attorney Mark Rosen said in court Tuesday. “Student suspension and student expulsion records are to be kept confidential.”
Los Angeles Times attorney Kelly Aviles argued that the privacy of student records does not mean an adult plaintiff can hide their lawsuit from public view.
“You don’t have a right to rely on court hearings or proceedings to be secret,” Aviles responded. “This is not just an appeal, this is a lawsuit where the plaintiff is seeking monetary damages. When you utilize the court system, you do it in public.”
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified financial damages, asserts that 11 students were coerced under duress and false pretenses into signing expulsion agreements from CdM in 2014. Rosen’s case argues that his client’s detention and temporary expulsion interrupted an otherwise exemplary academic record.
“The scandal was much wider than these 11 students,” the plaintiff’s attorney argued in court documents. “They, however, have been made scapegoats for failure of the district, the district administrators and the district board of directors to take true action against the perpetrators.”
At the time of the 2014 incidents, students were accused of working with an adult tutor, who used keystroke loggers and other techniques to change grades.
A motion to seal the case was initially granted but upon learning of the decision before a pretrial hearing the Daily Pilot challenged it.
Gastelum upheld his tentative ruling to have the case unsealed, writing that the plaintiff “failed to demonstrate an overriding interest, which overcomes the public right to access.”
The trial is expected to begin in October.