After students allegedly assaulted a boy five times over two months at his school and on the bus, the boy's parents had enough. They hired a lawyer who demanded that the Charleston County School District hand over surveillance videos of what happened.
Nine months later, the school district says it doesn't have the footage. The boy's mother is suing, claiming that the district deliberately destroyed evidence.
School district policy ECAA says that a school can delete surveillance video footage after 10 days unless "an incident is reported or a request is made to view or copy a video." Police reports were filed in four of the five cases involving the boy. The lawsuit, filed Oct. 2 in Charleston County Court of Common Pleas, claims the district broke its own policy as well as the state's open-records law.
According to the attorney, Mark Peper, the student is a 12-year-old boy who was assigned to Liberty Hill Academy in North Charleston in December 2017. Liberty Hill is an alternative public school that serves partly as a last-chance reform school for students with serious disciplinary issues. Another part of the school serves special-needs children in first through eighth grade.
According to police reports, a student allegedly hit the boy with a shoe on Dec. 13, 2017. Five days later, the same student allegedly got in a fight with the boy and threatened to kill him and his mother.
Another student punched the boy in the face on Jan. 11 in a hallway, according to a police report. On Jan. 16, several students admitted to hitting him, including one who confessed to hitting him with a belt, according to school records provided by Peper. Two days later, a police report says a student punched the boy three times.
On Jan. 23, the family's lawyer sent the district a letter demanding that it preserve any records from the incidents, including surveillance footage. Like many schools, Liberty Hill has surveillance cameras, and district emails indicate that the bus also had a camera. On May 10, Peper submitted a Freedom of Information request for the records and footage.
On Sept. 20, a district official wrote back: "Too much time had elapsed between your request and the date. Unfortanently (sic), there is no video for this matter."
Last month, Circuit Judge Michael Nettles ruled that the district was "grossly negligent" in failing to preserve the videos.
"I don't know whether or not they can be recovered in some way or fashion, but I'm gonna order that y'all do whatever is necessary to try to recover any videos that might have been destroyed," he said.
School district spokesperson Erica Taylor said the district denies intentionally destroying any information. She said Peper was told promptly that the school's video had been overwritten by the then current system.
Taylor also said the district was not made aware that the request was pertaining to school bus video, which it had to get from its bus contractor, until shortly before the recent court hearing. "CCSD does, however, respect the opinion of the court and will absolutely abide by the judge's orders," she said.
The lawsuit sheds light on a dark period at a school that ex-teachers described as dangerous and anarchic over the last two school years.
Shortly before the student in the lawsuit started at Liberty Hill, Principal Christopher Haynes sent an email to teachers saying that he was "closing without action" a backlog of 159 student discipline referrals. Teachers were outraged and said they felt unsupported.
Haynes made some changes at the school this fall, including hiring a behavior interventionist and revising the system for "restoring" students back to their home schools.