Privacy and that guy on the school bus

If there’s a person who allegedly sexually assaults little kids on a school bus, is there a way to tell people without violating privacy?

The short answer is “no” under Minnesota law, which is why the letter the South Washington School District sent to parents contained the usual words that didn’t say much.

“The intent of this letter is to inform you of a developing situation, one that we take seriously,” school superintendent Keith Jacoby wrote. “It is not intended to communicate that there is an ongoing risk to any student or employee.”

“Within the bounds of these constraints, we will do our best to honor our obligations to our students, their families and our employees,” Jacobus wrote.

“The safety and security of our students, employees and all who visit our facilities remains our highest priority and is a necessary precursor for providing a high-quality education to our students in an environment that is safe and welcoming for all,” he said, promising that the district will communicate as openly as it can within the law.

That is to say: hardly at all. Prompting more questions and fears than answers.

Of course, the privacy of those involved shouldn’t be violated. Even the name of Harvey Theodore Kneifl, 70, of Woodbury, who hadn’t yet been charged, didn’t need to be revealed to parents. And certainly the identies of the special needs kids he allegedly fondled nor the school they attended didn’t need to be part of a letter that could have maybe said, “police are investigating a school bus aide who may have sexually assaulted students, but it’s OK because he’s on administrative leave.”

But even that would be against the law, and it makes sense that local officials would lower the cone of silence; it’s a huge law and there are many ways to violate it.

Sending letters that only heighten fear at least conveys that you said something instead of nothing, a far greater transgression. For the record, the parents of the kids on the bus were notified specifically, though the letter to the district didn’t indicate that.

Situations like this lead to communication to communities that’s still not proportionate to the situation, particularly as characterized by the Washington County attorney.

“What this defendant is alleged to have done is totally abhorrent to society,” Pete Orput said.

There’s another aspect to the state privacy laws that tends to frustrate society: It makes it far harder for people in a school district to find how it is a guy got a job on a bus in the first place.