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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Teachers’ attorney says investigative records should stay sealed

OLYMPIA – Spokane Public Schools should not release records of investigations into unproven allegations against two teachers, even if it removes their names, because identifying them from the documents is “just a baby step,” an attorney for the two teachers told the state Supreme Court.

“Any reporter is going to be able to figure out the names,” Tyler Hinckley said.

But an attorney for the district argued that while there are exemptions to the state’s public records law to block documents that are highly offensive, there isn’t one for records that might simply be embarrassing.

“Embarrassing is not highly offensive (which is) so inflammatory, so upsetting that you can never go back,” Philip Buri told the court.

The case involves records requested by The Spokesman-Review and KREM television regarding teachers who had been placed on administrative leave. The two teachers deny the allegations, which stem from unrelated incidents, and the district has not completed its investigations. When the district informed them it planned to release the documents, they sued to block the release.

The trial court ruled they had a right to privacy, but the public also had a right to know what steps the district was taking to investigate the allegations against them. The district was ordered to disclose the records but black out the teachers’ names. An appeals court panel agreed, saying that disclosing unsubstantiated rumors with their names would violate their privacy rights, but releasing the documents with their names removed would not.

Justice Mary Fairhurst asked why releasing the documents without the names isn’t enough to protect the identities. When a reporter requests an administrative letter about a particular teacher and gets that letter with the name blacked out, the teacher’s identity isn’t protected, Hinckley said.

The justices took the case under advisement and could rule on it later this year.

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