SN 131023_ET_MSC_RITZER_1

Colleen Ritzer

DANVERS — Documents that refer to details about the video surveillance system and other security measures at Danvers High School in effect in 2013 were ordered sealed by a Lawrence Superior Court judge on Monday at the request of the town – a request opposed by the lawyer representing Tom and Peggie Ritzer.

The Ritzers and their attorney, Daniel Murphy, believe the real motive for the request is to spare the town “embarrassment” over the then-new system’s failure when their daughter Colleen, of Andover who taught at Danvers High School, was raped and murdered in 2013.

But Judge John T. Lu said he shared concerns expressed by a lawyer for the town about safety and security and called it “inappropriate” to allow the public to have access to some of that information.

The couple’s attorney argued that the request by the town – which is no longer a defendant in the case – was overly broad, a “wide blanket” that would prevent the public from learning about lapses in the operation of the school’s security system, and that the materials the town expressed concern over – including schematics of the school – were not even part of the package of documents the town wanted sealed.

Murphy told the judge that the couple is not seeking the release of specific locations of cameras or other sensitive information, but that there is a presumption that the public has a right to see other information about whether the system was properly working at the time of their daughter’s murder – an issue that came up at the trial of their daughter’s killer, Philip Chism, when a police officer testified about the difficulty of finding surveillance images of Chism moving around the school before and after the crime.

The Ritzers believe that had someone been monitoring the security system at the time of their daughter’s murder, it could have been interrupted or prevented altogether.

“The fact that there was video and it was not functioning properly has been public knowledge since 2016,” Murphy told Lu.

The Ritzers are continuing to pursue a wrongful death claim against DiNisco Design Partners, which designed both the expansion of Danvers High School and its security system.

Just weeks after the newly expanded school reopened in 2013, Ritzer was followed to the restroom by Chism, then 14, who repeatedly stabbed and slashed her, then wheeled her body into a wooded area adjacent to the school, where he sexually violated her. He was found guilty in 2015 and is serving 40 to 60 years in prison.

While her family has sought to keep her memory and legacy of kindness alive through annual walks, they have also sought answers and accountability for the lapses they believe led to her death, filing a civil lawsuit against the town, the cleaning contractor that, it was revealed at Chism’s trial, washed away potentially helpful evidence, and DiNisco. In 2019, a judge allowed motions to dismiss the claims against the town and SJ Services.

“They care very deeply about safety,” Murphy told Lu. “That’s the reason they brought this litigation.”

That package of documents was being filed by attorneys for the sole remaining defendant in a civil case brought by the Ritzers over their daughter’s death, DiNisco Design Partnership, who want the court to dismiss the case against them on summary judgment, a ruling without a trial.

As DiNisco was about to file the motion for summary judgment, the town, though no longer a defendant in the case, filed its own motion asking that the entire package filed by the architect’s attorneys, including the motion and other documents in support of that motion, be impounded, or sealed from public view, citing what they say are security and safety concerns.

John Davis, an attorney for the town, told Lu that their concern was for the “safety of the staff, students and any visitors” to Danvers High School. He said the town initially attempted to “redact” potentially sensitive portions of the materials, including depositions of School Resource Officer Sgt. Stephen Baldessare and Assistant Superintendent Keith Taverna, but found that it was impractical.

Davis also told the court that the materials attached to the motion would not be considered public records under state law – though the state’s public records law does not apply to filings in court cases, which are instead covered by a combination of other statutes and legal precedents.

“We think the materials we have submitted show good cause for impoundment,” Davis told the judge. He also cited a confidentiality agreement signed at the start of the case.

Davis said the district discussed the situation with the attorneys for the architect. A lawyer for DiNisco told the judge that it was deferring to the school’s wishes regarding the request for impoundment.

Davis also submitted a written affidavit from Superintendent Lisa Dana, which said in part that “Disclosure of details of the (Danvers Public Schools security system to the general public, including the documents and information contained in DiNisco’s (summary judgment) package, will compromise and threaten the safety of ... students, faculty, staff and visitors by making it easier for those who which to enter DPS schools and/or to harm DPS students or personnel (or) to hack into, bypass or otherwise disable such systems.” She also said sealing the documents will “ensure maximum protection” for students and staff.

Dana went even further than the motion, however, urging Lu in her affidavit that “all proceedings to be held by this court regarding DiNisco’s motion for summary judgment should be closed to the public.”

The Ritzers and Murphy disagreed with the town’s request, filing an opposition to the request for impoundment, saying, “The last thing that the Ritzers want would be to create a security threat,” and that they do not want disclosure of anything that could create a security risk.

“However, the Town of Danvers is seeking a complete impoundment supported by a blanket, generalized argument that public disclosure creates a ‘security risk.’” Murphy wrote. “There has been no showing by Danvers of what exactly” is in the filing, “that could present a security risk.”

“Contrary to Danvers’ argument, the fact that the security system was not functioning at the time of the incident is of interest to the community and information relating to security measures in 2013 should not be impounded,” Murphy wrote. “Danvers should be transparent in the security issues that were present in 2013 and the community is rightfully owed the information relating to the faulty security system.”

In his ruling, the judge shared his concerns about releasing specific security information that might be included in some of the materials filed in support of DiNisco’s motion to dismiss the case.

“It is unacceptable for the court to release school security plans or their equivalent,” Lu concluded in his order granting the town’s motion in part and denying it in part.

Lu ordered that any memos, affidavits, or exhibits that are filed with the motion must be done so under seal. He ruled that the actual motion itself, if it a separate document, cannot be impounded.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis

Trending Video

This Week's Circulars

Recommended for you