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Privacy expert calls on Vancouver School Board to release report on harassment

Vancouver Board of Education official trustee Dianne Turner speaks to media at the Vancouver School Board offices in October. Turner was made the VSB's sole trustee after the rest of the board was fired in October.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The Vancouver School Board could – and should – release a full report into bullying and harassment at the board, despite privacy concerns that have so far kept it under wraps, a privacy expert maintains.

"It is part of a pattern of government releasing only what it wants from these reports, and hiding behind claims the privacy laws prevent them from doing otherwise," Vincent Gogolek, the executive director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA), said on Monday.

Mr. Gogolek was referring to the VSB's decision to release the executive summary of a bullying investigation, rather than the full report.

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The summary, released Friday, found concerns regarding a "toxic work environment" were valid and that board members routinely engaged in conduct that was "uncivil, disrepectful and rude."

The full report was not released. The VSB said it had consulted with B.C.'s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) to ensure the release process "is appropriate and compliant with privacy laws" and was working on a redacted report in response to anticipated Freedom of Information requests.

It's not unusual for public bodies to take a cautious approach to releasing information, said Dan Burnett, a media and defamation lawyer with Owen Bird in Vancouver.

"They [the VSB] may be concerned about releasing a report that either directly or implicitly identifies people, [because of privacy issues] – they would be in violation of the statute to do that, so sometimes you see public bodies take ultracautious approaches," Mr. Burnett said.

In addition, the VSB may also be trying to head off potential legal action or trying to strike a balance between its obligation to disclose information and its desire to minimize potential negative publicity.

"Do they think an executive summary fulfills their mandate without fanning the flames of media stories any more than they have to be? Any of those, or any combination of those, are what pop into my mind," Mr. Burnett said.

The FIPA's Mr. Gogolek, however, views the VSB decision as part of a pattern in which the government has used privacy legislation to withhold or delay disclosure of information.

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In 2015, he complained to the OIPC about the government's position that it could not post online two high-profile 2014 reports – one related to compensation at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and the other related to firings in the Ministry of Health – due to purported restrictions in the act.

In a July, 2015, response to Mr. Gogolek, the OIPC said such reports could be posted online pursuant to a minister's order – but that "the absence of a more readily available authority" was a shortcoming in the act.

Later that year, in November, the OIPC recommended in a submission to a legislative committee that the act be changed to streamline disclosure of some reports, saying the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act "was never intended to shield the government from accountability; rather, one of its key purposes is to promote accountability."

In May, 2016, a legislative committee recommended the act be amended to allow public bodies to "post non-statutory investigation or fact-finding reports online where the public interest in disclosure outweighs the privacy interests."

To date, the government has not acted on any of the committee's regulations.

Despite that, the VSB could seek a ministerial order to release the whole report, Mr. Gogolek said.

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It is up to the VSB to determine how it releases information, OIPC spokeswoman Erin Beattie said Monday in an e-mail.

"Disclosure can be required in response to an access request and there are provisions in FIPPA that may allow for proactive disclosure," Ms. Beattie said.

"The primary concern in both of these instances involves disclosure of third-party personal information and it is the responsibility of VSB to ensure they balance the need for transparency with the personal privacy of individuals."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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