Sheriff's Office won't release report of substitute teacher's arrest

rlurye@islandpacket.comDecember 12, 2013 

The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office said it had nothing new to report Thursday about a Hilton Head Island High School substitute teacher accused this week of sending inappropriate pictures to a student and asking him to buy marijuana.

Margaret Ann LaMantia, 23, a long-term Spanish substitute at the school, was charged Tuesday with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and disseminating harmful material to a minor, according to a Sheriff's Office news release issued Wednesday.

The Sheriff's Office provided no new information Thursday and refused to provide its complete report on the incident -- likely in violation of the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, according to Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association.

The law requires law enforcement agencies to provide reports disclosing "the nature, substance, and location of any crime or alleged crime reported as having been committed."

It exempts from disclosure some information -- for instance, the identity of police informants or information that might put someone's safety at risk. However, the law only allows the agency to "delete that information from the report," not withhold the report altogether, Bender said.

The Island Packet requested the complete report Thursday but received only a cover sheet that contained no details of the crime of which LaMantia is accused.

"You're going to get what you always get," public information officer Sgt. Robin McIntosh said when asked for the full report. "We don't need an exemption."

Sheriff P.J. Tanner said his office routinely has provided only the front page of reports while an investigation is open. The front page includes the time, date, location and type of incident. In some cases, the Sheriff's Office also will issue a press release providing some additional information on an arrest, as it did in the LaMantia case.

Tanner said he was surprised the newspaper pushed for the entire report because his office's practice for the past 15 years has been to release only the front page while an investigation is ongoing.

Bender said the Freedom of Information Act includes no exemption allowing pages of reports to be withheld while investigations proceed. In fact, the act was amended during the 1980s to prevent law enforcement agencies from skirting the public-records law in just such a manner.

That action was prompted by events involving the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, according to Bender.

The Sheriff's Office -- under a different sheriff at the time -- had adopted a practice of providing cursory information on documents labeled "incident reports," while recording fuller descriptions of those incidents in "supplemental reports" that were withheld from the public, Bender said.

"The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office contended they were following the law because they were providing the 'incident report,' " Bender said. "The General Assembly was incensed that the Sheriff's Office would engage in such subterfuge."

Bender said that to remove any ambiguity, the legislature struck the word "incident" from the law's description of documents that must be made available to the public during an agency's usual operating hours when the requestor appears in person.

Tanner said he would not change his department's policy.

"It's really not even logical that, in an ongoing investigation, we would reveal things as we progress through the investigation," Tanner said. "That's why it's called an active investigation."

In this instance, the newspaper is not seeking information that the Sheriff's Office turns up as its investigation moves forward after the arrest, however. Rather, it requested the report containing information that led up to the arrest.

Jeff Moore, president of the S.C. Sheriff's Association, said there has long been controversy about what information law enforcement agencies must release.

"If the agency believes the narrative has information that, if it became public, could undermine or interfere with an investigation, they have a legal right to withhold it," Moore said, "not just to redact certain things."

Most agencies follow similar policies during active investigations, according to Moore.

"It's pretty much standard operating procedure," he said.

LaMantia remained in the Beaufort County Detention Center late Thursday, with bail set at a total of $25,000.

She is "no longer an employee" of the Beaufort County School District, according to district spokesman Jim Foster. The district conducted its own investigation of the incident, which has concluded, but Foster would not provide details.

LaMantia became a long-term substitute at the beginning of the school year when Hilton Head High was unable to fill a vacant position for a Spanish teacher. The district vets its substitutes as it would a full-time teacher -- with reference and criminal-record checks -- and nothing in LaMantia's background caused concern, Foster said.

Interest in LaMantia's story is high -- the story of her arrest accounted for a third of all page views on the Packet's website since it was first reported there.

According to a Sheriff's Office news release, LaMantia exchanged phone numbers with a 16-year-old male student -- one of her Spanish pupils, Foster said -- before Thanksgiving and sent him pictures of her genitalia. She also asked him to buy her marijuana, according to the release.

The student's parents reported what they believed to be an inappropriate relationship between their son and a teacher to the school resource officer.

Reporter Sarah Bowman contributed to this report.

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

Related content: Hilton Head High substitute accused of inappropriate acts with student, Dec. 11, 2013

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