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New Trier News

The student news site of New Trier High School

New Trier News

New Trier sued for denying FOIA request related to Holocaust Remembrance Day activity

Parents Defending Education seeks a court order to make New Trier release records

UPDATED April 17, 3:06 p.m. with official comment from Director of Communications Nicole Dizon.

Parents Defending Education (PDE) sued New Trier High School on April 10, asking the Cook County Circuit Court to force the administration to release records about a student-planned Holocaust Remembrance Day activity that never took place

[Christopher] Johnson, who serves as New Trier’s FOIA Officer, wrote when denying PDE’s request that it was ‘unduly burdensome.’

The activity was created by the German Club, German classes, and Jewish Affinity Group, who wanted to honor Holocaust Remembrance Day, celebrated annually on Jan. 27, by distributing stickers with the #WeRemember hashtag to each adviser room across the Northfield and Winnetka campuses. Due to the short notice about the activity, however, and the time frame to properly prepare advisers for any conversations that may arise from having the activity, Superintendent Dr. Paul Sally decided not to approve the activity.

On Feb. 15, PDE—a nationwide organization that seeks to “fight indoctrination in the classroom” at academic institutions and restore “non-political education”—submitted an Illinois Freedom of Information Act request to New Trier. The Virginia-based group requested emails between 13 New Trier administrators and faculty members from Jan. 1, 2024, to Feb.15, 2024, that contained the terms “Holocaust,” “Palestine,” or “Gaza.” New Trier denied PDE’s FOIA request on March 1.

Anyone can make a FOIA request, asking public bodies—school districts, villages, park districts, etcetera—for access to public records. The law is meant to provide transparency about actions taken by the government. The public bodies, however, can deny these FOIA requests when records contain sensitive and personal information, or are “unduly burdensome,” where the request would take an exorbitant amount of time for the public body to look through records. 

In the FOIA request, PDE wrote that it expected to put any record received from New Trier on its website, as the group claims to have “a proven track record of disseminating news about K-12 education.”

The FOIA request named Sally, Associate Superintendent Dr. Christopher Johnson, Assistant Superintendent for Special Education and Student Services Joanne Panopoulos, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Peter Tragos, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Chimille Tillery, Director of Communications Nicole Dizon, Winnetka Campus Principal and Assistant Superintendent Denise Dubravec, Northfield Campus Principal Paul Waechtler, Northfield Campus Associate Principal Gail Gamrath, Assistant Principal Dan Paustian, and equity liaisons Timothy Hayes, Patricia Savage-Williams, and Kiran Subhani. 

A week prior to PDE’s FOIA request, two additional requests were made by local community members, similarly asking for school communications regarding Holocaust Remembrance Day and the #WeRemember campaign. In one of them, filed by Thomas Hayden of FOIA Gras, New Trier’s three equity liaisons were named. The second request, filed by Brian Amado of Highland Park, was extended on Feb. 23, whereas Hayden’s request has been closed.

Johnson, who serves as New Trier’s FOIA Officer, wrote when denying PDE’s request that it was “unduly burdensome.”

Johnson went on to say that reviewing every record to remove any non-disclosable information would take an “unreasonable period of time” and would come at a cost to taxpayers, as New Trier would need outside legal counsel to help review those records.

When PDE appealed New Trier’s decision, the lawsuit claimed that their request was not “unduly burdensome,” but rather “highly circumscribed,” and that a “simple directive to each of [New Trier’s] employees to conduct a three-keyword-search of his or her email inbox could yield all the request results in seconds.”

PDE claimed that the New Trier community cares deeply about the records they requested under FOIA. Several New Trier community members expressed in the Feb. 20 Board of Education meeting concerns about the activity’s cancellation, citing increased antisemitism in schools. 

“Following the rise in antisemitism across U.S. school campuses and Defendant’s denial of a Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration, the public has a strong interest in the requested records. This is highlighted by the fact that four news outlets—including the Chicago Tribune, The Patch, The Record North Shore, and the New Trier News—reported on [New Trier’s] actions related to Holocaust Remembrance Day,” PDE wrote in the lawsuit.

Dizon, via email, said that New Trier responds to every FOIA request with “the same legal standards and with a goal of the utmost transparency.” 

When requests are “unduly burdensome on the district’s time and resources,” Dizon said that New Trier asks requesters to narrow their requests so they can be provided the requested records. 

“We did ask this group [PDE] to narrow their request, but the group chose not to respond and instead publicized an action against us,” Dizon said.

The court date for the complaint made by PDE against New Trier is set for Aug. 8, 2024, at 10 a.m. at the Richard J. Daley Center.

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