Officials of the Wash. Educ. Assn. (WEA) have conspired with Bellevue School Dist. officials to prevent Seattle Times reporters from seeing files on teachers and coaches accused of sexual misconduct. Union officials even hosted “building file” parties, in which teachers could remove discipline records from their personnel files. The Times had not expected this fight when they asked the state’s 10 largest school districts for public information on sexual misconduct complaints against teachers and coaches last Dec. The state Sup. Ct. had ruled in 1990 that opening such records did not violate the teachers’ privacy.
Some districts released the information. But Bellevue asst. superintendent Sharon Howard responded quite differently. “I’d be delighted if we could share as little as possible” with the Times, she wrote in an email to the WEA’s general counsel. “The best course of action was to work with the WEA to arrange for them to bring [lawsuits] to stop this,” Howard wrote to a teacher. After the Times’ request, lawyer Tyler Firkins — claiming to represent 36 teachers accused of sexual misconduct — sued to stop the release of records by the Bellevue, Federal Way and Seattle school districts. In fact, the WEA hired Firkins, and some of the teachers had no knowledge of the case until told about it by the Times. One teacher couldn’t have known about the lawsuit since he was dead.
Even teachers actually convicted of sexual wrongdoing were included in the effort to keep their records from public view, incl. frmr. WEA president Reese Lindquist, who pled guilty to communicating with a minor for immoral purposes in 1992. In March and April, the Bellevue union sent an “Alert” to members inviting them to review their personnel files and destroy discipline records after the approval of the bldg. principal or employee relations director.
In the union lawsuit, Firkins argued that the state Sup. Court’s earlier ruling on disclosure applied only to cases where the teacher was given an official “letter of discipline.” Afterward, the Seattle School Dist. tried to change a “letter of discipline” in one teacher’s file to “letter of direction.” In April, King County Superior Ct. Judge Douglass A. North ordered the release of 21 records to the Times, while siding with the union in 15 cases, saying that those teachers had not been formally disciplined. The state Sup. Ct. will soon hear appeals in some of those cases by both the Times and the union. [Seattle Times, 12/14/03]