Anchorage Police Nab Files In Raid on District's Office
An unusual police search of a school-administration building in Anchorage has led to a major rift between two of the city's most visible public agencies: the police and the schools.
Prompted by a high-school teacher's alleged sexual liaison with a 17-year-old student, the incident has touched off a fierce debate in the city of 250,000 over the privacy of school records.
The search took place on Oct. 3, as school-district administrators sat down to a morning meeting.
William Coats, the superintendent of schools, was summoned from the meeting to find the chief of police waiting for him with a handful of search warrants--and a contingent of officers clad in bulletproof vests.
For two days, Mr. Coats said, the police occupied the administration building. They shut down the switchboard for half an hour. They combed files of teachers and students. They photographed documents and took copious notes.
The police even asked an administrator to wear a concealed radio transmitter into a meeting with district lawyers, according to the superintendent.
"What we had was a couple of 'Rambo' cops running wild," Mr. Coats said. "I don't think they would've done a $2-billion drug bust any differently."
In response to the police action, the district has filed suit in state court charging that the police broke state and federal laws protecting the confidentiality of student and personnel records. The suit also maintains that constitutional guarantees to due process were violated.
In addition to demanding to know the reasons behind the full-scale search, the district is also seeking to force the police to reveal the information they collected.
The police department, for its part, has referred inquiries on the matter to the district attorney. District Attorney Dwayne McConnell, citing the pending lawsuit, refused comment last week.
Alleging Sexual Abuse
The furor over the search has almost overshadowed the incident that spurred it.
A 17-year teaching veteran named Gordon "Satch" Carlson was forced to resign in August following accusations that he had sexual contact with a 17-year-old female student in his English class.
Rumors of Mr. Carlson's alleged liaison began circulating at his high school in May, according to Mr. Coats, and building-level administrators confronted the teacher and the student at that time. Both denied the affair.
The matter rested there until August, when the student's father told district administrators that he believed there had been sexual contact between the two.
"This time," Mr. Coats said, "our people decided to check it out more thoroughly."
Two district administrators visited the student at a summer college program she was attending and questioned her again. She said the rumors were true.
Mr. Carlson was then given an ultimatum: resign or be fired. And Mr. Coats said the matter was reported soon after to the police department's division of family and youth services.
"We did everything the way it should be done, and we just figured, 'Well, that's the end of it,"' he said.
But the police claim school administrators failed to report the incident promptly or may even have tried to cover it up. State law requires school officials to notify state authorities promptly when they have reason to believe child sexual abuse has occurred.
The matter is complicated, explained Jeffrey Feldman, Mr. Carlson's lawyer, by questions concerning whether the teacher's alleged misconduct constitutes criminal activity.
The legal age of consent in Alaska is 16. The student was 17 when the affair allegedly took place. But the law makes an exception when the minor involved is entrusted to the care of the adult. That constitutes child sexual abuse, law-enforcement officials contend, which schools are required to report promptly.
Mr. Feldman argues, however, that the law adjusting upward the age of consent applies only to caretakers who have parental responsibilities toward a child--not to teachers. So far, the teacher has not been charged.
Even so, school officials contend, the police department's search went far beyond the scope of the search warrants they presented. In addition to looking at the files of those involved in the alleged affair, police examined records related to other students, teachers, and administrators.
"It was an illegal fishing expedition," Mr. Coats said.
A number of federal laws protect confidentiality, the most notable for educators being the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, known as the Buckley Amendment. Among other safeguards, the law assures parents that they may prevent disclosure of personally identifiable information without written consent.
When such records are the subject of a court order, notice must first be given to parents, according to the district's lawyer, Howard Trickey.
State school officials said Alaska laws on the privacy of school records mirror the federal laws in that regard. And similar state laws guard the confidentiality of teacher evaluations and personnel records, Mr. Trickey said.
"I think every school district in the country ought to have procedures on what to do when confronted by search warrants, in order to protect the files that are required to be kept confidential," he said.
In Anchorage, the controversy now turns on whether the district was right in suing another public agency. One local newspaper has editorialized in support of the district's action; another has condemned it.
William Frick, the school-board president, said most calls from his constituents have been supportive. Other board members, he conceded, have received more critical messages.
"They're upset that we're using tax dollars to sue another public entity, but they're not at all concerned about the time and overtime of the officers used to raid the school department," Mr. Frick said. "This lawsuit was the only way to get at the truth."
Vol. 09, Issue 08