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Originally published August 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 1, 2008 at 9:07 AM

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Washington Supreme Court says privacy trumps identifying teacher in cases of unsubstantiated sexual misconduct

The state Supreme Court issued a ruling Thursday that pitted the fear of stigmatizing an innocent teacher against the threat of allowing...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The state Supreme Court issued a ruling Thursday that pitted the fear of stigmatizing an innocent teacher against the threat of allowing sexual predators in the schools to escape detection.

The scenario before the court was this: A teacher is accused of sexually abusing a student. The school decides the allegation is unsubstantiated. Under state law, should the teacher's name be disclosed?

By a 6-3 vote, the court fell on the side of accused teachers. The names of teachers must be disclosed only in cases where sexual misconduct has been found or some form of discipline has taken place, the court ruled. In unsubstantiated cases, the details of any investigation may be disclosed — but with the teacher's name redacted, or blacked out.

The issue was brought before the court by 15 teachers from the Seattle, Bellevue and Federal Way school districts. The teachers asked the judiciary to prevent their districts from releasing their identities in response to a public-records request by The Seattle Times.

The newspaper wanted the records as part of an investigation of coaches who sexually abused students yet continued to be employed in the public schools. The investigation, published in 2003, found 159 coaches in Washington who were fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment to rape. At least 98 of them continued to teach or coach.

School districts often failed to investigate complaints against coaches and didn't report them to law enforcement or the state education office, The Times found.

The case before the Supreme Court amounted to a square-off between the Washington Education Association (WEA) and much of the state's media, with more than a dozen publishing companies or broadcasting groups filing briefs supporting The Times' position.

The WEA — with about 81,000 members, mostly teachers — lauded Thursday's ruling.

"Unsubstantiated allegations can do severe damage to a teacher's reputation," said Rich Wood, an association spokesman. "This decision will help protect good, hardworking teachers who are dedicated to helping their kids get a good education."

David Boardman, executive editor of The Times, said: "We are surprised and deeply disappointed by the court's decision. Not only will this make it much more difficult for the public to protect children against predators, it will make it nearly impossible to assess whether school districts are adequately investigating complaints by students and their parents.

"In fact, it could even give the districts an incentive to do a shoddy investigation. A finding of 'unsubstantiated' can now protect them from public scrutiny."

The justices on each side sounded similar themes. Justice Mary Fairhurst, for the majority, wrote: "The mere fact of the allegation of sexual misconduct toward a minor may hold the teacher up to hatred and ridicule in the community, without any evidence that such misconduct ever occurred."

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Fairhurst was joined by Chief Justice Gerry Alexander and Justices Susan Owens, James Johnson and Bobbe Bridge. Justice Tom Chambers also signed the majority opinion but wrote he agreed "in result only," with no further comment.

Justice Barbara Madsen dissented, joined by Justices Charles Johnson and Richard Sanders. Madsen wrote that as a consequence of the court's ruling, "predatory teachers may go undetected and unpunished. 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."

Madsen also wrote: "It is important to bear in mind that unsubstantiated does not mean untrue."

The case hinged on the state's Public Records Act and whether records of alleged sexual misconduct requested by The Times were exempt under a right to privacy.

The Times argued that even allegations that school officials didn't substantiate can be of legitimate public concern. Disclosure allows the public to see if there's a pattern of complaints against a particular teacher. Plus, the newspaper argued, schools often do an inadequate job of investigating complaints, thereby protecting teachers who may well be predators.

Since the 2003 investigative series, "Coaches Who Prey," the newspaper has continued to write about teachers in other districts who have molested children and managed to escape punishment for long periods of time.

Under Thursday's ruling, the records underlying those stories may, in some instances, no longer be available to the public.

As part of the ruling, the majority found that school districts do not have to release the names of teachers who received letters of direction, or guidance, when the letter doesn't identify an incident of substantiated misconduct and no discipline or restriction is imposed.

In 2006, as part of an investigation of improperly sealed court records, The Times wrote about John Carl Leede, a former teacher in the Northshore School District. Leede was accused as early as the 1980s of molesting students, but complaints to principals were ignored or dismissed with hardly any investigation.

It wasn't until a parent went to police that Leede was removed from the schools and convicted of seven misdemeanors, including six counts of assault.

The Times filed a public-records request, which revealed that principals received at least 16 warnings about Leede covering a period of 12 years. But the district did not substantiate any of the complaints.

One time, a principal wrote a letter of direction to Leede, politely suggesting he "may want to take a look at" a pamphlet on inappropriate touching. But the letter made no mention of substantiated misconduct or discipline.

Under the court's ruling Thursday, that letter and every complaint filed by parents, staff members and other teachers in the Northshore School District would likely be deemed undisclosable with Leede's name attached.

Staff reporter Steve Miletich contributed to this story. Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or karmstrong@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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