Washington Supreme Court closes records of 'unsubstantiated' sexual misconduct accusations against teachers

WASHINGTON — Educators are cheering a recent WashingtonSupreme Court opinion that they see as upholding privacy rights, but othersbelieve it makes investigating sexual abuse cases in schools moredifficult.

The State’s high court ruled 6-3 that school districts are not obligatedunder state public disclosure laws to release the names of teachers accused ofsexual misconduct with students but whose cases had been declaredunsubstantiated.

In cases relating to the sexual abuse of children by teachers, Justice MaryFairhurst wrote for the majority that “allegations of such abuse should bethoroughly investigated by school districts and, if the allegations aresubstantiated, the media may request records containing the identity of theperpetrating teacher.”

“However,” she wrote, “when such allegations are determined to beunsubstantiated, the identity of the teacher is exempt from disclosure to apublic records request because such disclosure would violate the teacher’s rightto privacy.”

Fifteen teachers with past accusations of sexual misconduct from theSeattle, Bellevue, and Federal Way school districts had instigated the lawsuitto prevent their names being released in response to a 2002 public-recordsrequest from the Seattle Times. The Times requested the names aspart of an investigation into coaches who had been disciplined for sexuallyabusing students but had continued to teach or coach.

Representatives for the Washington Education Association, a unionrepresenting the accused teachers, were pleased with the July 31 ruling, callingit a “good decision” that will protect innocent teachers from publicscorn.

“Unsubstantiated allegations can really hurt a teacher’s reputation,” saidWEA spokesperson Rich Wood. “This ruling will help protect teachers in caseswhere the allegations have not been proven.”

Wood also pointed out that state law requires school personnel to reportcases of suspected abuse to the police and that an employee’s history ofmisconduct must be shared with the new employer if an employee leaves thedistrict.

Critics of the decision, including journalists and open-governmentadvocates, believe that it may result in more abusers going undetected. Theypoint out that unsubstantiated claims are not necessarily false ones, and thatimage-conscious school districts might choose to cover up cases of abuse bylabeling them unsubstantiated rather than expose the district to publicscrutiny.

Also, while school district officials are required to release reports ofsubstantiated claims of sexual misconduct to a former employee’s potential newemployer, there are contradictory views as to whether they are required torelease reports of unsubstantiated claims and how detailed those reports shouldbe.

Jim Neff, the Seattle Times editor who oversaw the series thatspurred the request, expressed his disappointment with the decision.

“We don’t think it helps to protect students from possible misconduct byteachers,” said Neff. “It’s easier for things to be swept under the rug.”