A parent in the USD 416 Louisburg school district wants to know why the High School track coach is taking cellphone pictures of students for contact tracing purposes without parental permission. Tiffany Ellison emailed the school principal seeking answers after her daughter said a coach daily photographed track team members for what he said were “legal purposes.”

“I am not OK with the idea that pictures are taken for legal purposes, especially with a coach’s personal cell phone,” Ellison wrote to LHS Principal Jeremy Holloway. “We understand that we signed a media agreement at the beginning of the year to allow pictures for yearbook purposes. I did not, however, sign that with the understanding that my child’s picture would be taken for legal purposes.”

In his immediate response, Holloway wrote that photographing students is not an administrative decision, and he said would get to the bottom of why that occurred. 

Holloway later reversed course. “I do support the taking of pictures of track groups for tracing/attendance purposes as it has been a difficult task for us this year to maintain a safe environment as defined by county mandates,” Holloway wrote. 

His follow-up response raised even more questions, according to Ellison.

According to Holloway, the district must provide information to the Miami County Health Department about any students that come into contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.

“And we will continue to do so,” Holloway wrote. “And this, too, has been backed up by KASB.”

Health department denies asking USD 416 for photos

The Kansas Association of School Boards is a nonprofit advocacy organization. Most of its members are school boards but the organization doesn’t have authority over school districts.

“We are seeking answers as to why the principal and district superintendent openly support a teacher taking personal cell phone photographs without authority or permission to do so for the express purpose of contract tracing, yet also deny that the school district has performed contact tracing this year,” Ellison said. “If the photos were not taken for tracing purposes, then why does the administration support an employee taking cell phone pictures of athletes under the guise of tracing purposes?”

District officials never notified parents of the practice. The Miami County Health Department provides contact tracing after someone tests positive for COVID-19 and they conduct interviews for contact tracing.

The health department told the Sentinel it did not recommend schools take photos of students for tracking purposes. 

State law also says contact tracing must be voluntary, not mandatory.

USD 416 board did not authorize the photo-taking practice

Meanwhile, Jacob Vickrey, a Louisburg USD 416 board of education member, said the school board didn’t directly authorize using photographs for tracing.

“Like most school boards, we set COVID policy at the beginning of the year trying to work with KASB (The Kansas Association of School Boards) and the health department to do what we can to follow the guidelines for what the state allows us and requires us to do,” Vickrey said.

Ellison was allowed to opt out of the practice, but officials apparently never notified other parents that they could also opt out. Their children likely continue to be photographed without parental permission.

“I don’t think the policy is widely known,” Vickrey said. “It’s not something that was advertised.”

He said the school board will discuss it at a future meeting.

“We want to address parents’ concerns and have a discussion and make sure the rest of the board is fully aware of the practice,” he said.

District fails to provide documentation sought in records requests

Ellison requested copies of the photos taken of her daughter at practice. However, district officials have yet to supply them. She also sent several Open Record requests to the Louisburg district seeking more information about how officials quietly implemented the photo practice.  She requested:

  • Statutory or other documentation that supports the district’s contention that the coach and other district employees must take photos for contact tracing purposes. 
  • She asked about a COVID-related bathroom policy that requires doors remain open. She asked the district to confirm whether that is true and to provide statutory or other documentation requiring them to do so.
  • She sought documentation showing that the track coach is a certified contract tracer. 
  • She asked for documentation showing students are legally required to participate in contact tracing without doing so voluntarily. 
  • She requested documentation showing that the district is required by law or health department order to conduct contact tracing. 

USD 416 Superintendent Brian Biermann on March 25 replied, “The Louisburg School District has not performed any contact tracing this school year.  The Miami County Health Department conducts all contact tracing.”

Biermann said propping restroom doors open is a “common practice” when there is loitering or vandalism, and that the doors are not propped open for contact tracing but he didn’t say whether the doors were in fact propped open.

As for the rest of Ellison’s Open Records request, Biermann wrote, “The district is in possession of no responsive document that would constitute a “public record” as defined by K.S.A. 45-217.”

District’s limited response raises more questions

The district’s limited response raised additional questions that the Sentinel posed to Biermann.

  • If there isn’t a district policy of taking pictures of girls, why did the coach say he was doing so for legal purposes?
  • On what basis does the district support coaches taking pictures of girls on a personal cell phone if there is no district policy directing such action?
  • Holloway’s return email approved Ms. Ellison’s request that her daughter no longer be photographed; have all other parents been notified that they can opt out of having their children’s pictures taken?  On March 9, Ms. Ellison wrote to you, thanking you for “stepping up to stop the photographing of student athletes for tracing purposes.”  Is that an accurate reflection of your conversation, and if so, have you stopped the photographing of student athletes for tracing purposes?
  • You wrote, “The Louisburg School District has not performed any contact tracing this school year.  The Miami County Health Department conducts all contact tracing.”  That conflicts with Mr. Holloway saying he supports the pictures being taken for contact tracing, so if the district is not doing contact tracing, why is a coach taking pictures, and why is Holloway supporting that action?
  • Does your KORA response mean there is no “Statutory or other documentation that supports the district’s contention that the coach and other district employees must take pictures of students for contact tracing purposes” or that the pictures taken were not required to be taken?
  • Does your KORA response mean that the coach is not a certified contact tracer?
  • Does your response mean that the district the district is not required by law or health department order to conduct contact tracing or to provide pictures to aid in contact tracing?

Biermann did not respond to the Sentinel’s questions.

Parents are left to wonder if USD 416 is covering something up or just unwilling to admit that officials gave out inaccurate information.

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