Ethics Data Online - Articles

"Union, district joined forces to block records"
Christine Willmsen and Maureen O'Hagan, Seattle Times staff reporters
Sunday, December 14, 2003

When The Seattle Times asked the Bellevue School District for information about teachers and coaches accused of sexual misconduct, school officials and the state’s most powerful union teamed up behind the scenes to try to hide the files.

The Bellevue teachers union organized a districtwide personnel-file review so teachers could go through their files and remove materials. The district says no sexual-misconduct records were removed, but the past president of the union said records The Times asked for were removed in one case.

The alliance between school districts and the teachers union began last December after The Times asked 10 of the state’s largest school districts for public information on sexual-misconduct complaints against teachers. The newspaper was looking in particular for complaints against teachers who also worked as coaches.

The Edmonds and Lake Washington school districts released the information promptly, giving names and assignments in cases with outcomes ranging from suspension to oral warning to unproven complaint. Bellevue took a much different approach.

"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," Sharon Howard, an attorney and an assistant Bellevue schools superintendent, wrote in an e-mail obtained by The Times.

Rather than fight the newspaper directly, Howard invited the Washington Education Association (WEA) to sue the Bellevue district under the names of teachers with sexual-misconduct complaints.

"The best course of action was to work with the WEA to arrange for them to bring (lawsuits) to stop this," Bellevue attorney Howard wrote to a teacher. "I’d be delighted if we could share as little as possible" with The Times, she wrote in another e-mail to the WEA general counsel.

Howard later told a reporter that asking for sexual-misconduct files was "intrusive" and that it was "wise" to ask the WEA to sue the district.

WEA President Charles Hasse supported the fight. "You give up a lot to be a schoolteacher," he said. "There should be some privacy preserved."

Tyler Firkins, an Auburn lawyer, filed a lawsuit asking the court to stop the Bellevue, Federal Way and Seattle school districts from releasing the records of 36 teachers accused of sexual misconduct. He argued that the teachers’ privacy would be invaded and claimed in court to have been retained by each of the teachers.

In fact, the WEA — not the 36 clients — hired Firkins. Some of the teachers told The Times they hadn’t even heard of Firkins.

Asked about the lawsuit supposedly filed for him, former Seattle teacher Michael Wiater said, "It was without my consent."

Firkins also filed on behalf of one teacher, claiming to represent his interests, but the teacher was dead.

The Times had not expected such a fight. The state Supreme Court ruled in a 1990 case, Brouillet v. Cowles Publishing Co., that records of teacher sexual misconduct shall be open to public inspection and that revealing them does not violate teacher privacy.

The Times' lawyer, Michele Earl-Hubbard, argued that the public had a right to see all complaints, even those that were not pursued by officials or that did not result in a reprimand. Otherwise, the public would never learn of valid teacher-misconduct complaints that were ignored, or cases in which the teacher wasn’t punished even though evidence supported it. By withholding teachers’ names, even in minor or dismissed complaints, the public would not be able to learn if the coach was pushed out and got into trouble at other districts or was still involved with young people.
Yet districts and the union lawyers tried to conceal records, even in one case in which a teacher had been convicted of sexual misconduct.

For example, Firkins filed a lawsuit on behalf of past WEA President Reese Lindquist, a former Seattle teacher who in a highly publicized 1992 case pleaded guilty to communicating with a minor for immoral purposes.

Asked why the union wanted to prevent public scrutiny in these cases, WEA general counsel Jerry Painter said, "Somebody dropped the ball."

As for the teachers who unknowingly became part of the lawsuit, Firkins said he was working under a tight deadline and didn’t have a chance to ask them all if the union could sue on their behalf.

As The Times battled in court for access to teacher-misconduct records, the Bellevue Education Association, organized an unprecedented, districtwide plan for teachers to review their personnel files.

In February, the union sent members an "Alert!" about the request and outlined a defensive tactic: The union would host a "building file party" at each school so teachers could review their personnel files. As part of their union contract, Bellevue teachers can have complaints and misconduct records purged from their files, including reprimands that are remedial and older than three years, after approval by the building principal or director of employee relations. Many other teachers’ contracts in Washington contain similar provisions.

The district said a month later that group reviews weren’t allowed. At least 64 Bellevue teachers reviewed their files at schools across the district, mostly one at a time or one after the other on the same school day. Debby Nissen, BEA president at the time, said that as a result of one file review, a teacher was allowed to destroy notes about a sexual-misconduct complaint The Times was seeking. Nissen said the complaint detailed in the destroyed records did not result in discipline. District officials deny any sexual-misconduct records were removed.

In addition to having the union fight their battles, several school districts shared legal advice about "taking on The Times," according to a memo obtained under a public-records request.
The WEA argued that the Brouillet case applied to sexual-misconduct records only if a teacher was given a “letter of discipline, even when the teacher admitted to the misconduct.

After the union made this argument in court, the Seattle School District tried to alter the wording of documents in at least one teacher’s case, recasting a discipline letter as a "letter of direction." Under the WEA’s argument, this change would keep the teacher’s record concealed.

In April, King County Superior Court Judge Douglass North issued a ruling. All told, The Times won 21 cases, including five in which districts did little or no investigation. He ruled for the union in 15 cases, saying the teachers had not been formally disciplined. The Times appealed the decision to the Washington Supreme Court.

The Times won similar cases in Grant and Pierce counties. The union is still fighting The Times in a Thurston County case involving seven teachers.