Attorney questions why a Utah school district is keeping names secret in investigation of 10-year-old’s bullying and suicide

A media law attorney questions the lack of transparency after the district has faced intense scrutiny.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Davis School District Superintendent Reid Newey discusses the death of student Izzy Tichenor during a news conference in Farmington, on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. The district has formed a panel to investigate how Izzy's concerns were handled, but it is refusing to release the names of the members.

Davis School District is refusing to release the names of the people it has hired to investigate its handling of multiple reports that 10-year-old Izzy Tichenor was being bullied before she died by suicide.

The plan to create the review team was announced shortly after Izzy’s death in November, as community members demanded a response from the district to the tragedy that some saw as preventable. Izzy’s mother, Brittany Tichenor-Cox, has said she went to the district several times, but intense abuse of her daughter for being Black and autistic was allowed to continue without intervention.

The district said a three-member team would be asked to look into how administrators responded. It confirmed Tuesday that the members have been selected but declined to disclose their names.

“We won’t be releasing their names or credentials until after their report is done,” said district spokesman Chris Williams.

He said district leaders believe releasing the names would lead to “outside interference” in their work. “We want to provide them as much anonymity at this point, as possible, so they feel they can do their work without any pressure,” Williams added.

Jeffrey Hunt, a media law attorney, said withholding the names appears to be illegal. He’s concerned by the lack of transparency in the high-profile case, he said, adding that the reason for the secrecy appears to be “so hypothetical and purely speculative.”

“I’m not aware of any exceptions [to public records laws] that would allow them to classify the names as private,” he said. “The public needs to know who these individuals are.”

The Salt Lake Tribune has filed a public records request for the names.

Williams said only that one person on the team is an expert in interviewing children about trauma, one is an expert in educational practices and one is a legal expert.

None of them work for the district, he said, which provides independence for the team. He did not have information about how much they would be paid or how they would be supervised, he said.

When their report is done, he said, it and their names will be shared publicly.

Hunt noted that the district is a public entity that uses taxpayer dollars — including to compensate the team. That entitles the public to know who the investigators are, the attorney said.

“And keeping the names secret seems like an odd way to build public trust in the investigation,” he said.

Izzy’s death occurred a month after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report on Davis’s serious mishandling of reports of racism.

In October, after a two-year investigation, the DOJ found that district administrators intentionally ignored “serious and widespread” racial harassment in its schools for years — failing to respond to hundreds of reports from Black students after they had been called slaves and the N-word.

Davis, a predominantly white district, said it is making the changes recommended by the DOJ. But Tichenor-Cox, Izzy’s mom, has said some of her reports about her daughter being bullied came after the DOJ’s findings, and that they were disregarded.

(Tichenor family) Pictured is 10-year-old Isabella "Izzy" Tichenor in this undated family photo.

When it announced the review team, Davis School District expressed condolences over her death but did not comment on how it handled the reports.

“The death of Izzy is tragic and devastating,” the district said in a statement. “Our hearts continue to be with the family, friends and community who are grieving this loss. The well-being of our students will always be a priority, and we are committed to preventing this from happening in the future.”

Williams said there is no set timeline for the review team’s work. Members will have “however long they feel they need to have to reach a conclusion,” he noted.

Rae Duckworth, the leader of the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter, said the names of the team members have been shared confidentially with Tichenor-Cox and her lawyer. Duckworth noted only that none of the experts appear to be from Utah.

Hunt, the attorney, said it is standard for members of review teams to be identified, so community members can assess their credentials and whether they represent diverse viewpoints.

He pointed to the three-member team hired by the University of Utah after student-athlete Lauren McCluskey’s murder on campus. The investigators were all named before they started their work.

“That was a huge case,” Hunt said. “And they didn’t wait until the report was issued. Public bodies have created independent panels and commissions to investigate all types of serious wrongdoing and mishandling of situations at our institutions. And we don’t keep their names secret.”