Questions about whether the public has a right to know details of alleged teacher misconduct are the subject of three separate court actions involving Spokane-area school districts in recent weeks.
In one case, a Washington appeals court ruled last week that a Riverside High School teacher has no right to block the release of official records regarding his sexual encounter with a former student that led to his dismissal. A three-judge panel rejected the appeal of former teacher Allen Martin, who sought to keep Riverside School District from releasing the investigation into the incident after The Spokesman-Review asked for the records under the state Public Records Act.
Martin was eventually fired for having sex with the former student in his classroom. He argued the investigation records should be withheld from public view because they would violate his privacy and are part of his personal employee data.
Although he admitted to the action, he argued the relationship was with a consenting adult, not a current student, and did not happen while he was performing his public duties.
The court disagreed. The fact that certain information is embarrassing isn’t enough to bar its release under the law, the panel said in its unanimous ruling.
“Mr. Martin had a sexual encounter on school grounds, with a former student, during a holiday in the school year,” the panel said. “The district considered this conduct an inappropriate use of a school facility and a complete disregard for the school environment.”
The public has a legitimate interest in knowing about substantiated allegations of teacher misconduct occurring on public school grounds, the court said. It also has a legitimate interest in knowing how the district investigated and handled the matter.
In a ruling last month, the same panel ordered a partial release of records regarding a Shadle Park High School counselor and a Glover Middle School teacher who were each placed on leave while allegations of misconduct were investigated. Both had denied the allegations.
A trial court ruled the public has a legitimate concern in learning what steps the district took in its investigations and ordered the records released with the names removed to preserve their privacy rights.
The appeals court agreed, saying the right to privacy applies “only to the intimate details of one’s personal and private life.” The teacher and the counselor have a right to have their names redacted from the documents because the misconduct has not yet been substantiated, it said.
The redacted records must be disclosed under state law even though someone may be able to determine the names that were blacked out, the court said.
Meanwhile, four Spokane Public Schools employees who are on paid administrative leave filed suit against the district and the parent company of The Spokesman-Review to block the release of other records.
All four are on leave while the district investigates allegations of misconduct which they contend are either false or unrelated to their jobs. They want the court to block the district from giving the newspaper a list of employees who are on paid administrative leave pending an investigation.
“Disclosure of the records is clearly not in the public interest and would substantially and irreparably harm” the four employees, the lawsuit claims.