The Tri-Valley community continues to mourn the death of Ben Curry, who drowned during PE class at San Ramon Valley High School in Danville on May 8. Curry's family and friends -- and the entire community -- are demanding answers they are owed.
This school and teacher were entrusted with the safety of this 15-year-old boy, and now he is dead.
The lack of transparency of the public officials and agencies involved, particularly the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office and San Ramon Valley Unified School District, is beyond frustrating and begs the question of who or what they are trying to protect.
Being the only news outlet to consistently cover SRVUSD, we submitted public records requests to the school district and the sheriff's office, which contracts with the town of Danville for its law enforcement. Among the items we requested were the security camera footage from the pool, incident reports, investigation reports and other documents relating to the death, along with body-worn camera footage from sheriff's Deputy Kyle Rhoton, the school resource officer who was first to arrive on-scene.
The school district has been less than cooperative. Contra Costa Sheriff David Livingston summarily denied and dismissed us.
Livingston's written response concluded: "We fully appreciate the family's and the community's sorrow at the loss of this young man. Our investigation into this sad event is, by law, exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act. This fulfills your Public Records Act request."
Translated: Go away and don't question us again.
No, it does not fulfill our request. And no, we won't go away.
If a teacher isn't fired for failing to notice a student drowning on his watch, what can they get fired for? If a teacher who left for lunch without confirming all students were safely out of the pool isn't even reprimanded, what is wrong with this school district? If school employees apparently face no consequences for a student drowning in class (a lack of care aptly described as "negligence" and "despicable" in the Curry family's lawsuit filed this Tuesday), how can we trust this district and the people who run it?
Transparency would be a good start toward rebuilding trust.
Katrina Curry, Ben's sister, admonished SRVUSD leaders during an October school board meeting saying, "(Aaron Becker) was never even put on leave while the investigation was in progress. He failed in his most basic duty as a teacher. My brother is dead."
We asked SRVUSD Superintendent Rick Schmitt if Becker was placed on administrative leave for any time. After several days we were told by SRVUSD communications director Elizabeth Graswich, "We are not at liberty to share information about personnel matters which are confidential by nature."
When we didn't accept this answer, we were told that there are "no records that apply to your request" -- which we took to mean Becker was never placed on leave.
It is standard operating procedure in the public and private sector to put an employee on administrative leave until an investigation is complete. This applies to a police officer involved in a shooting or an employee accused of harassment. Why is this different?
This is more than a personnel matter; this is a matter of protecting a teacher who had a child die on his watch. Not only is Becker still teaching, he continued his duties as head varsity football coach and associate athletic director at the high school this fall.
The sheriff's office response to our request was to completely shut us down, invoking the "investigatory exemption."
Often public agencies try to keep the public in the dark by claiming the documents requested are part of an investigation and, if released, would jeopardize the investigation or someone involved in the investigation, such as an informant. (The only reason we got access to the coroner's report is the family attorney shared a copy with the media.)
Documents we requested do not put anyone in harm's way and, according to the school district and the sheriff's office, the investigation into young Ben's death is over -- and no criminal charges were filed.
Second, even if an exemption exists, it is not mandatory to withhold information unless disclosure is prohibited by law.
We believe those documents should be released.
"The Sheriff disagrees," we were told by the sheriff's office, citing a prior court case, "asserting that the statute on its face contains no time limitation and that the exemption services interests that outlive the investigation for which the file was originally created, such as the safety of informants and undercover officers, the integrity of related investigations, and the privacy of persons whose affairs have been investigated but who have not been charged with crimes."
Sheriff Livingston, we disagree.
And, like many in the public, we want to know why this child died and why Becker apparently wasn't ever placed on administrative leave, even during the investigation. We also want to know why the district and the sheriff's office is not being completely transparent with the public they serve.
A sheriff's deputy fatally shot a man at the end of a pursuit near downtown Danville on Nov. 3, and when the man's family filed a wrongful-death claim against the town of Danville, the sheriff's office posted on its Facebook last week: "Once all investigations are completed, we look forward to sharing the full details with the public."
Why will full details be shared after the investigation in that case, but not in a case in which a child died while at school?
Livingston, Graswich and Schmitt seem to miss the fact they are ultimately accountable to the public and that the public has a right to know the basic facts of Ben Curry's untimely death. There is no justification for failing to make this information available to the public now.