Court condones school secrets
The Washington Supreme Court ruled wrongly in John Does v. Bellevue School District, a case about the rights of teachers accused of sexual misconduct.
The Washington Supreme Court has made a serious error in protecting the identities of public-school teachers accused of sexual misconduct with students.
The Seattle Times was an interested party in the case, John Does v. Bellevue School District, which came out of a 2003 investigative series, "Coaches Who Prey." We filed requests for records in Seattle, Bellevue and Federal Way of teachers who had been investigated or sanctioned for sexual misconduct. Some of them sued their employers, demanding that the records be withheld.
The court decided 6-3 yesterday to protect the identities of teachers when the allegations were not "substantiated" and also when disciplinary letters did not mention a specific incident or include a penalty.
That may sound reasonable. The public employee unions like it.
The problem with the ruling is that it allows school districts to keep problems of sexual misconduct under a blanket, which many of them have been relieved to do.
The Times' story found that of 159 coaches "who were reprimanded, warned, or let go in the past decade because of sexual misconduct ... at least 98 of them continued coaching or teaching afterward."
The position of The Times, and of our industry, is that a teacher's dealings with public-school students are part of their public duty, and cannot be shielded by a right of privacy. A teacher may be falsely accused, just as any person may be falsely accused of a crime. But it is far better for accusations to be made public than to allow the school district to cut deals to keep them hidden.
Yesterday's ruling comes two-and-a-half weeks before two of the justices, Mary Fairhurst and Charles Johnson, are up for re-election. The public should note that Fairhurst wrote the decision siding with the accused teachers and Johnson sided with the public's right to know.
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