Public’s right to know highlighted by case of handcuffed 8-year-old

By Deborah McKeon
Temple Daily Telegram
Originally published March 14, 2016

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas works hard to make sure that public business is conducted in public and that the liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment are protected.

The public has a right to know what its government is doing and to receive straight talk, and that is what Sunshine Week highlights — the importance of efforts to stop attempts to chip away at transparency in the courts, at the Legislature and in government offices.

Both the Belton Independent School District and the Temple Daily Telegram have requested information from the city of Temple to find out more about what happened to an 8-year-old boy who was handcuffed recently at Pirtle Elementary School.

In an attempt to keep that information from being public, the city filed two separate requests with the Texas attorney general’s office, the most recent one dated March 11. The Telegram reporter received an email with a letter attached explaining the city’s reasons for requesting an AG opinion in the case.

Belton ISD believes the withheld information is important to the completion of its investigation of what happened on Feb. 16 when an 8-year-old boy was handcuffed by a Temple Police officer, Belton ISD spokesman Kyle DeBeer said in a March 4 article.

“The investigation has reached some preliminary conclusions but is not yet complete,” DeBeer said.

The district asked for the audio and video recording the day the incident happened and asked the next day for the rest of the information, but those requests were denied, a Belton ISD letter to the attorney general’s office said.

The boy’s parents were given a copy of the body camera’s audio and video recordings by the city, and the parents shared their copies with Belton ISD and the Telegram.

The district wants to make sure the copy of the video it received is the entire video, DeBeer previously said.

Belton ISD maintains the school resource officer, Officer Bobby Cook, should never have been called by the school principal and that Cook should never have handcuffed the 8-year-old boy, DeBeer said.

Temple Police Chief Floyd O. Mitchell said in a March 4 Telegram article that the officer didn’t violate any departmental policies.

Mitchell is vacationing this week and not available to comment on the importance of transparent government in connection with this incident, Temple Police spokeswoman Shawana Neely said Monday.

The city explained in the letter that it wanted to withhold the information because a person involved is a child, the documents or files concern a child and those requesting the information are not from juvenile justice agencies, criminal justice agencies and aren’t the child’s parents or legal guardians.

However, the child’s age doesn’t meet the minimum age requirements in Title 3 of the Texas Family Code. The city’s argument is that the traditional and societal definition of a child is met and the student should be protected under the law the same as a 10-year-old would be.

Another claim the city makes is that the information involves the treatment of mental health disorders and might have intimate and embarrassing information. However, the parents of the child have been open about their 8-year-old’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder with both the school district and the Telegram.

Finally, the city wants to keep the officer’s training records confidential, claiming it is part of the officer’s personnel file, not the public file.

Belton ISD also wants to know if the officer had the appropriate training as a school resource officer to handle children with special needs, DeBeer said Monday.

The incident report was requested by the district because it wants to compare what the report says with that its employees have told them, DeBeer said.

“At this point, we’re just waiting to see what the attorney general’s office says,” he said.

An officer’s training records are public information routinely released in response to media requests through the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.