Ethics Data Online - Articles

"Q&A: Bellevue's role in coaches series"
The Seattle Times
Sunday, January 11, 2004

The Bellevue School District disputes some details of an article published last month by The Seattle Times in the investigative series "Coaches who prey."

That article, a sidebar published the first day of the four-day series, recounted how the Bellevue district and the Washington Education Association (WEA) had worked together to prevent the release of sexual-misconduct records to The Times.

In an "Open Letter to the Bellevue Community" posted on the district's Web site, the Bellevue School Board defends the district's actions.

"While we support the Times' stated intent in protecting children, we believe the paper has inaccurately portrayed our district in this matter," the letter states.

Times Managing Editor David Boardman said the newspaper stands by the article. He added, though, that while the story was accurate based on information made available to the reporters by the district and its teachers union at the time, new details have emerged that provide more clarity on what transpired.

He also acknowledged that on one point — the use of the term "file parties" in describing efforts to review and purge teacher records — the newspaper should have more clearly stated that the language came from the Bellevue Education Association (BEA), the local teachers union.

Here are some questions and answers on this matter:

Q: Do district officials dispute the essence of the story, that they worked with the teachers union to prevent the release of teacher sexual-misconduct records?

A: No. District officials acknowledge they worked with the WEA to prevent disclosure of some of the records The Times had requested. The Times made the request for a summary of sexual-misconduct complaints against teachers, including their names and school assignments, in December 2002. In January 2003, Sharon Howard, an attorney and an assistant Bellevue schools superintendent, wrote in an e-mail to a teacher that the district "worked hard trying to find a way to avoid releasing any information not absolutely required to be."

"There is no reason we would ever want to drag current or former employees through public attention to such matters — even those who were found to have committed misconduct."

Superintendent Mike Riley recently told The Times that he and Howard differed on this and that he believed proven misconduct cases should be available to the public.

On Jan. 24, the WEA sued to stop the release.

Q: What were the records the newspaper wanted?

A: The Times asked 10 of the state's largest school districts for records of sexual-misconduct complaints from 1992 to 2002. The request covered all complaints, regardless of punishment.

Q: Why did The Times ask for records of misconduct complaints that were unpursued or unproven?

A: Reporters had been told, and their investigation determined, that sexual-misconduct complaints against coaches in many instances were poorly investigated by school districts. 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.

Additionally, without the names of coaches against whom there had been complaints, The Times would have been unable to determine whether those coaches got in trouble in other districts.
By obtaining the full set of records, The Times was able to show that some schools ignored complaints, made cursory inquiries and failed to discipline teachers and coaches, often simply passing them along to other districts.

Q: Why did The Times think it was entitled to these records?

A: The newspaper relied on a Washington Supreme Court ruling, Brouillet v. Cowles Publishing Co., which said the public has a legitimate interest in teacher sexual-misconduct cases.

Q: How did the other school districts respond to The Times' request for information on sexual-misconduct complaints?

A: Several districts, such as Northshore and Edmonds, provided the requested information within a month. They included names, summaries of complaints and outcomes, ranging from not substantiated to suspension. Bellevue provided a summary chart of 11 complaints, without teachers' names.

Federal Way and Seattle took a similar approach and gave The Times lists of misconduct cases with teachers' names omitted. Twenty-five of those districts' teachers also became part of the WEA lawsuit.

Q: What was Bellevue's reasoning?

A: As the School Board states in the open letter, "We felt it was prudent" to have the matter settled in a union lawsuit because of "questions about how to protect both the public's legitimate right to information and innocent employees' right to their good names." Bellevue school officials say they were concerned the newspaper would violate their employees' privacy.

Q: What about that?

A: Just because a newspaper gathers information doesn't mean it will publish it. Reporters use only the small, newsworthy portion of information gathered during an investigation.

Libel laws protect against publication of false information about individuals, and The Times is careful to respect those laws. The newspaper makes judgments every day about what information to publish. In this series, the paper published details only about coaches with documented cases of sexual misconduct.

Q: The Times reported that Bellevue teachers held "file parties" to review their personnel files. The district denies that. Did these "parties" occur?

A: The term "file party" was created and used by the BEA in a Feb. 7 newsletter, "Alert!," warning teachers of The Times' records request and urging them to attend a union-organized "building file party" to review their files.

Bellevue teachers, like many others in the state, are allowed, with an administrator's permission, to remove certain records — including those on misconduct — from their files after several years.

The district acknowledges that at least 64 teachers reviewed their files after The Times' request.

But officials dispute the use of the term "party" to describe what happened.

In a memo to school principals last March, Superintendent Riley said teachers had no right to group file-viewing and the reviews should be conducted individually and by appointment.

According to the district, most principals allowed teachers to review their files individually. In a few cases, two or three teachers reviewed their files at once. At some schools, the principal set aside part of a day and met with teachers in back-to-back individual sessions.

Q: Was this kind of file review by teachers unusual?

A: Superintendent Riley says it was. BEA President Clint Brady says that in his 19 years as a teacher, he had never heard of organized file-viewing.

Q: Were any records removed from teachers' files?

A: That is unclear. Former BEA President Debby Nissen, in interviews before the series was published and late last month, said she was involved in at least one case in which notes about a sexual-misconduct complaint were removed from a teacher's file.

But the school district says no misconduct records were removed. After talking with district officials earlier this month, Nissen changed her account and now says no records were removed.

Q: What happened when the WEA challenged the newspaper in court?

A: After hearings in King County Superior Court, the newspaper obtained copies of the 11 teachers' files, but their names and school assignments were omitted. In April, Judge Douglass North ruled that the names of four teachers must be released. For the other seven, he said the teachers' names should not be a public record.

In his ruling, North said he relied on the union's interpretation of an appellate-court ruling, Tacoma News v. City of Tacoma, which involved a political candidate accused of sexual abuse. In that case, the allegations were investigated by four agencies but could not be proved. The appeals court decided the unproven allegations should not be a public record.

In arguing against The Times' request, a WEA lawyer went further and argued that if a teacher was not reprimanded or disciplined, the misconduct records should be considered unfounded and not revealed. North agreed with that in seven of the Bellevue complaints, although several cases involved teachers who had received warnings or notices called "letters of direction."
The Times has appealed North's ruling to the Washington Supreme Court.

Q: Were there other Bellevue cases of sexual misconduct than the 11 involved in the lawsuit?

A: Yes. In September, Bellevue gave The Times files of four more teachers with complaints of sexual misconduct against them. The district said it had overlooked these records, which had been requested by the newspaper in December 2002.

Q: Did the newspaper series feature any problem coaches from Bellevue?

A: No. One Bellevue coach was included in a Times online database of sexual-misconduct cases