OLYMPIA – In a case where the 11 petitioners are all known as John Doe, the state Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on Thursday that unsubstantiated allegations of teacher sexual misconduct can be withheld from the public.
“Sexual abuse of children by school teachers is a terrible atrocity,” Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote, and school districts should investigate complaints thoroughly. If allegations are substantiated, she said, the accused teacher’s identity can be released.
But if an investigation doesn’t find that misconduct occurred, she wrote, quoting a lower court ruling, disclosing the teacher’s name “serves no interest other than gossip and sensation.”
Justice Barbara Madsen blasted the ruling in a lengthy dissent. Students are reluctant to report abuse, she wrote, and school district investigations are often inadequate. The secrecy allowed by the court’s ruling will likely foster abuse of children in schools, she wrote.
“It is important to bear in mind that unsubstantiated does not mean untrue,” Madsen wrote.
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, also criticized the ruling.
“School districts often hide evidence of patterns of misbehavior by teachers, coaches and staff to avoid lawsuits,” he said. “It’s one thing to expunge allegations shown to be false from a teacher’s record, but we know from sad experience that where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.”
The court also ruled Thursday that “letters of direction” – official memos intended to guide a teacher’s behavior – can be released to the public. But if the letter doesn’t mention misconduct and the teacher hasn’t been disciplined, the court said, the teacher’s name and identifying information must be blacked out.
The case was brought by 15 teachers who wanted to prevent their school districts from releasing their names in response to a public-records request by the Seattle Times. A 2003 investigation by the newspaper found 159 coaches in Washington who had been disciplined for sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to rape. The Times report found that school districts often failed to investigate complaints against coaches and report them to law enforcement or the state education office.
Attorney Tyler Firkins, who represented the teachers, said the ruling doesn’t prevent newspapers from doing such investigations. He said the case was solely about making sure innocent teachers’ names weren’t associated with false allegations.
The court ruled Thursday that identifying teachers in unsubstantiated cases violates teachers’ right to privacy.
“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,” Fairhurst wrote. Keeping names and identifying information secret, she said, “will not impede the public’s ability to oversee school districts’ investigations of alleged teacher misconduct.”
A lower court had ruled that the information should be disclosed in cases where school districts’ investigations were insufficient.
But privacy rights shouldn’t hinge on the quality of employers’ investigations, Fairhurst said. And the public can still see investigation records – minus any identifying information.
In her dissent, Madsen cited a 2004 U.S. Department of Education report suggesting that 9.6 percent of students in grades 8 to 11 experience teacher sexual misconduct.
Sexual abuse of children is already hard to substantiate, because the adult and the child often are the only witnesses, she said. Students think – often legitimately, according to another report she cited – that they won’t be believed.
Under Thursday’s ruling, Madsen said, Washington residents probably won’t be able to tell whether schools are properly investigating complaints.
“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,” she wrote. “I dissent.”
Joining Madsen in dissenting were Justices Charles Johnson and Richard Sanders.
The court’s majority included Fairhurst, Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, and Justices Susan Owens, James Johnson and Bobbe Bridge. Justice Tom Chambers also sided with the majority, but agreed “in result only,” with no further comment.