A Seattle newspaper and Washington state’s largest teachers’ union are fighting in court over when complaints of teacher sexual misconduct become part of the public record.
The Seattle Times argues that any such complaints that are entered into a district’s files should be open. The Washington Education Association, on the other hand, would shield unproven complaints from public view.
The case has been before the state supreme court since last spring, but it is drawing attention now because the newspaper recently published the stories that led to the dispute. The investigative series focused on male coaches who prey sexually on members of girls’ athletic teams. It found that problems with the systems that are supposed to protect the girls allow coaches to continue to work with them despite a history of sexual misconduct.
Blocked by Suit
To pursue the investigation, the newspaper asked 10 of the state’s largest districts in December 2002 for 10 years of records on sexual- misconduct complaints, subsequent investigations, and their outcomes, including the names of those accused. Two districts complied; others did not. Four ended up in court with the newspaper.
Moreover, The Times alleged in the series that in one of the districts, Bellevue, Wash., school officials and the WEA had “teamed up behind the scenes to try to hide the files,” a charge the union and the district dispute.
The 15,400-student Bellevue district provided a summary of 11 complaints without teachers’ names, and an assistant superintendent assured some teachers in e-mails that she preferred that neither the names nor much else be made public.
The district subsequently told the local union, the Bellevue Education Association, that suing would be the only way to block the release of more information. Suits seeking to stop public examination of the records of 36 teachers in the Bellevue, Federal Way, and Seattle districts were later filed by a lawyer hired by the WEA.
Several months after the request from TheSeattle Times, the Bellevue union alerted teachers to the possible release of information and urged them to review their records in what the local union’s newsletter called “file parties.” WEA officials concede that was a regrettable choice of words, and the district contends that the vast majority of 60-plus reviews were conducted individually. Whether information related to one sexual-misconduct complaint might have been removed from a district file remains a matter of dispute.
In court, the WEA, which is affiliated with the National Education Association, argued that information related to teachers who were not investigated or not found culpable following a complaint should remain private. The Times defended its request for all the information, both on legal grounds and for what it argued was the public good.
“Without the full set of complaints, those judged to be substantiated and those that weren’t, the reporters would not be able to evaluate how seriously districts treated such matters,” the paper wrote this month in a published assertion that it stands by its story about Bellevue’s role.
Last April, a state court judge ruled for TheTimes in 21 cases and for the WEA in 15. Uninvestigated complaints and findings from investigations are public information, whether the teacher was disciplined or not, Judge Douglass A. North determined.
Siding with the union on another point, the judge further ruled that a warning letter from school officials to a teacher did not constitute “discipline” and so could not be released.
WEA President Charles Hasse said the union does not intend to appeal the rulings, though he still disagrees with some of the judge’s decisions.
“We understand why the public’s interest in [sexual misconduct by teachers] trumps the school employees’ right to privacy, but if an investigation has taken place and the complaint is found to be without basis or the teacher is exonerated, there is no reason that should be available to reporters or part of the public record,” Mr. Hasse contended.
The Times appealed the rulings to the state supreme court.
Meanwhile, the newspaper series has spurred action. Several state lawmakers are putting forward bills to tighten the protective systems, such as by listing disciplined teachers on a Web site. And the state schools chief has convened a task force to examine everything from hiring practices to rules for behavior in schools.
Nationwide, state policymakers have stepped up their efforts in recent years to curtail the problem of teacher sexual misconduct with minors. (“States Target Sexual Abuse By Educators,” April 30, 2003.)
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as Wash. Union, Paper Tangle Over File Access