Court backs identifying teachers accused of sexual misconduct
The public has the right to know the identity of teachers accused of sexual misconduct except when charges are proved false, a state Court...
Seattle Times staff reporter
The public has the right to know the identity of teachers accused of sexual misconduct except when charges are proved false, a state Court of Appeals ruled unanimously yesterday.
Records of teacher misconduct were sought by The Seattle Times for its 2003 series "Coaches Who Prey," which found nearly 100 Washington coaches who continued to coach or teach after being fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct.
Under the state public-records act, The Times had sought details regarding complaints of sexual misconduct, including teacher names, from numerous school districts.
Teachers accused of such misconduct in Bellevue, Seattle and Federal Way school districts filed injunctions against the districts to prevent the release of records that would identify them. They argued such disclosures would invade their privacy.
Court of Appeals Judge Mary Kay Becker wrote that "school districts must disclose the names of teachers who have been accused of misconduct of a sexual nature, even when the districts have concluded after investigation that the allegations are unsubstantiated or too minor to justify discipline."
"Unsubstantiated" and "false" are "two terms that do not mean the same thing," she wrote. Unsubstantiated complaints often are two conflicting accounts in which "a firm conclusion cannot be made."
The decision said "if a teacher's record includes a number of complaints found to be 'unsubstantiated,' the pattern is more troubling than each individual complaint. Yet, if the teacher's name in each individual complaint is withheld from public disclosure, the public will not be able to see any troubling pattern that might emerge."
In 18 cases in dispute, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of The Times in 15, stating school districts must release the names. In three cases, the court said names should not be released because the accusations were determined to be "patently false."
Yesterday's decision is expected to affect public agencies besides school districts. In the past, a district typically released the name of a teacher only after it determined that sexual misconduct occurred.
"It should mean that parents, future employers and the press will be able to find out about public employees who've been investigated for misconduct on the job without regard to the label that the employer attached to the allegation," said attorney Michele Earl-Hubbard, who argued the case for The Times. "The only ones that should be withheld are those a court or agency has determined are patently false."
Jerry Painter, general counsel for the Washington Education Association, which paid for a lawyer to represent some of the teachers, said the court's ruling set a nearly unattainable standard of proving that a teacher didn't commit sexual misconduct.
"The good news is we do have more guidance," he said. "The bad part is that it's very hard to prove a negative. This decision will harm and endanger a lot of professionals who are innocent."
Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, said the WEA's position "that you shouldn't have the names of teachers accused of sexual misconduct ... is unsupportable."
Painter said the WEA hasn't decided whether it will support an appeal.
Attorney Leslie Olson, who represented a now-retired Bellevue teacher accused of snapping bra straps and touching a student's buttocks in 1993 and inappropriately touching three students in 1995, said she would appeal disclosure of her client's name.
In all, the Court of Appeals and King County Superior Court ordered the districts to reveal 34 of 37 teacher names to The Times.
Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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