Teachers with “unsubstantiated” allegations of sexual misconduct in their personnel files deserve privacy protection, Washington state’s highest court ruled today.
The court ruled 6-3 against arguments by The Seattle Times newspaper that regardless of the outcome of a school district’s investigation, the names of teachers alleged to have committed sexual misconduct are of legitimate public concern.
“We hold that the public lacks a legitimate interest in the identities of teachers who are the subjects of unsubstantiated allegations of sexual misconduct because the teachers’ identities do not aid in effective government oversight by the public and the teachers’ right to privacy does not depend on the quality of the school districts’ investigations,” said the majority opinion in Bellevue John Does 1-11 v. Bellevue School District.
The newspaper in 2002 filed requests under Washington state’s public-records law with three school districts, seeking copies of records relating to allegations of teacher sexual misconduct over the previous 10 years. A number of teachers who had allegations of sexual misconduct in their records but were not criminally charged or disciplined sued to prevent the records’ release.
At issue before the state high court were the records of 15 “John Does” from the Bellevue, Federal Way, and Seattle school districts.
“In essence, disclosure of the identities of teachers who are the subject of unsubstantiated allegations serves no interest other than gossip and sensation,” said the opinion signed by five of the six justices who concurred in the outcome of the case.
The dissenting opinion cited a 2004 U.S. Department of Education study that suggested 9.6 percent of all children in grades 8-11 suffer educator sexual misconduct. (The dissent didn’t mention that the Education Department released the report with “reservations” about the author’s scope, as Education Week reported here.)
The dissenters said that because some school districts do not adequately investigate some allegations, some misconduct is recorded as unsubstantiated.
“As a consequence, predatory teachers may go undetected and unpunished,” the dissent said. “But the most unfortunate consequence, and one that is completely unacceptable, is that if predatory teachers are undetected, children will continue to suffer at their hands.”
Edweek.org has a special page called “A Lingering Shame,” which is a collection of stories the AP did on teacher sexual abuse, as well as links to an award-winning series the Education Week published on the topic both in 1998 and 2003 called “A Trust Betrayed.”
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.