Polk reconsiders proposal to allow evidence to be discarded in school investigations

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POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – A school board member who denounced a proposal to allow for evidence collected during school investigations to be discarded said the idea threatens his ability to assess those cases.

“Government’s instinct: if it can withhold information it will,” said Billy Townsend, a Polk County school board member.

Townsend spoke out about the policy proposal at a work session this week.

“My priority is retention of evidence that is relevant to an investigation,” he said to Wendy Dodge, legislative affairs director for Polk County Public Schools.

Officials from Polk County Public Schools say they were following new federal guidelines that dictate what schools are expected to retain from investigations, which does not include witness statements or documentary evidence, like emails or text messages.

“I suspect a lot of school districts are adopting this,” said Townsend. “I think it shows that you have a board in Polk County that’s very attentive to detail and is thinking through the implications of policies where in the past, we might have just rubber stamped them.”

Polk County Public School offices are closed on Fridays during the summer, so officials were not able to comment for this story.

Townsend does not believe the staff’s intention was “sinister.”

“This is more of a bureaucratic thing than it is any kind of ‘let’s hide something’ thing. It’s just sometimes within bureaucratic changes, mischief can lie,” he said.

Townsend said he has read witness statements in high profile investigations to ensure the right decisions were made.

Staff members agreed to change the policy proposal.

“Before this goes before the board for a final vote, we can certainly modify that. So you want to keep witness statements in all of the policies, regardless if they are an employee or a student. Is that what I’m hearing?” asked Dodge at the meeting.

Townsend responded that he would be open to “compelling” reasons why certain evidence regarding students should be discarded.

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