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Video Released; Shows Incident Resulting in Disciplinary Action Against FM Principal

Fort Madison School District
This photo shows the costume FMMS Principal was wearing during a school assembly in Dec. 2017. It was provided by the FM School District as part of an open records request.

An administrator in the Fort Madison School District was punished for an incident that took place at a school event in late 2017. A portion of the video showing what occurred has now been made public following an open records request from Tri States Public Radio.

*You can view the video here.*

Open Records Request

TSPR filed a request for public records through Iowa Code Chapter 22 on Sept. 24, 2018.

The request sought any audio/video recordings or photographs of an assembly held at Fort Madison Middle School between the dates of Dec. 12-14, 2017, specifically documentation of FMMS Principal Todd Dirth dressed in a banana costume.

Emily Ellingson, an attorney for the district, responded to TSPR’s request via email two days later.

“The district is in receipt of your request for records submitted on September 24, 2018. The information you have requested is confidential under Iowa Code section 22.7(11) because it is personal information in confidential personnel records relating to a District employee. Therefore, the District is required by law to keep this information confidential and legally cannot provide it to you.”

TSPR then filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB), which is charged with resolving potential violations of Iowa’s open records and open meetings laws. The IPIB informed TSPR via email on Oct. 1, 2018 that the complaint was received and a case file was started.

Settlement Offer

Ellingson responded to the complaint on Oct. 17, 2018 in an email to Amanda Adams, an employee of the IPIB. Ellingson told Adams that based on a prior advisory opinion issued by the IPIB on Sept. 20, 2018, “the district should provide access to the requested video footage.”

The opinion stated that a government body, in that case a police department, could not claim that a video was private due to it involving personnel when the video showed a police officer involved in a traffic accident.  

Ellingson offered to allow TSPR to view the video footage in the district’s central office in exchange for TSPR dismissing its complaint.

“This will ensure that [TSPR] can view it in a viewable format and that there isn’t a public release of student likenesses,” wrote Ellingson.

Ellingson further clarified the settlement offer in a subsequent email: TSPR could view the entire video and would be provided a flash drive containing relevant portions of the video. The videos on the flash drive would be edited to conceal the faces of students.

The district also extended the offer, at the request of TSPR, to the Pen City Current, an online publication based in Fort Madison. TSPR started working with the Pen City Current on the request for footage of the assembly after the IPIB dismissed a similar complaint against the school district that was filed by the Pen City Current, saying the complaint was not filed in a timely manner.

After several weeks of email exchanges and consultations with the IPIB, the settlement offer was accepted by TSPR. The station and the Pen City Current were allowed to view the video and receive portions of it on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.

Viewing of Video

Upon arriving at the central office for the Fort Madison School District, TSPR and the Pen City Current were instructed to leave our equipment bags and our cell phones in the waiting area. The district had previously said there would be no recording allowed of the footage.

We entered a small meeting room where a district employee was sitting behind a small laptop computer. The employee proceeded to play 11 clips, ranging in length from nearly 11 minutes to just a few seconds. All told, the video footage provided by the district totaled about 25 minutes.

The footage starts off inside a gymnasium with middle school staff walking around and students sitting in the bleachers or on the basketball court. The district did not provide any details as to what grade levels were included in the assembly.

The first eight clips that were played on the laptop, totaling nearly 24 minutes, showed an apparent “slam dunk contest.” Music played while students and faculty members took turns trying to dunk basketballs on lowered rims.

The reason for the assembly or why the selected students were participating was not provided by the district.

At the end of the eighth clip, principal Dirth can be seen walking towards the back side of the gymnasium. He was wearing a white shirt and what appeared to be black pants.

Banana Costume

When the 9th clip begins, which you can view here, Dirth is wearing a yellow banana costume over his clothing. One end of the banana is on the top of his head, the other end extends in front of him below his waist.

It’s unclear how much time elapsed between the end of the 8th clip and the start of the 9th clip. The video did not have a time-stamp.

Dirth is standing in the middle of the free throw lane, holding a basketball. There are about 35 students standing nearby.

Dirth attempts to bounce a basketball between his legs, but appears to have problems because of the costume. He walks over to the bleacher section and asks a female student to walk to the free throw lane with him. The footage provided to TSPR blurs her image.

About 17 seconds in to the 45 second clip, Dirth leans in and says something to the student. As he talks to her, he is holding up the portion of the costume that dangled below his waist.

The student clearly jerks her hand away from Dirth and throws her head back. She appears to say something to him, but the camera does not catch it. The students near Dirth seem to react as well, but it’s unclear to what exactly.

The student then walks back to her seat, stopping once to turn around and look in Dirth’s direction. Again it’s unclear if she said anything before returning to her seat.

Dirth then proceeds to tuck the lower half of the banana peel that was between his legs up inside the costume. He then bounced a basketball between his legs, before pulling the lower half of his banana costume back out, letting it hang below his waist.

The final two clips, each less than ten seconds in length, show Dirth standing in the background with the banana suit still on.

District Response

Superintendent Erin Slater was not present while TSPR and the Pen City Current viewed the video in the central office on Nov. 14, nor were any members of the Fort Madison School Board. As we were leaving the private room, we were handed a sealed envelope by a secretary.

Inside the envelope was a flash drive containing the three clips provided by the district that showed Dirth in the banana costume and two photographs taken by an unidentified person from a different part of the gymnasium.

A representative of the district said the only editing to the video was to blur out the faces of the students who could be recognized. The video clips were recorded using a cell phone while playing the video on a small laptop.

The envelope also provided an official statement from the district:

“Mr. Dirth has been and continues to be a valued employee of the Fort Madison Community School District. In late 2017, the District investigated Mr. Dirth’s conduct during a school assembly that occurred in December 2017. At the conclusion of the investigation, the district took appropriate disciplinary action related to the incident.”

The district did not say what the disciplinary action was or if anyone else was disciplined as a result of the assembly.

Jason Parrott is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.