State Supreme Court's ruling on school sex offenders is unfortunate

The state Supreme Court ruled recently that school districts in Washington do not have to disclose names of teachers who have been accused of sexual misconduct against students if the allegations have not been substantiated.

Identities must be disclosed only in cases where sexual misconduct occurred or some form of discipline has taken place, the majority wrote in the 6-3 decision regarding Bellevue John Does 1-11 v. Bellevue School District.

The court, by deciding to protect the privacy of the accused, ruled against The Seattle Times’ argument that the names of teachers alleged to have committed sexual misconduct, regardless of the outcome of an investigation, was of legitimate public interest. It’s the age-old story of our legal system protecting the accused while allowing institutions – schools, in this case – to take responsibility for the safety of their charges. Unfortunately, what occurs out of the public’s view, especially if it involves wrongdoing, sometimes stays behind closed doors forever.

The Times published an investigative story in 2003 that found 159 coaches in Washington were fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment to rape. The paper discovered that districts often failed to investigate complaints and didn’t report them to law enforcement or the state education office. It filed public-disclosure requests with 10 school districts for records relating to allegations of teachers’ sexual misconduct over 10 years. Thirty-seven teachers challenged the requests.

A King County Superior Court judge sided with the districts but a state appeals court overturned most of the decision, saying that allegations had to be “patently false” for the name of an accused teacher to be withheld. In the Supreme Court, Judge Mary Fairhurst wrote for the majority: “When an allegation is unsubstantiated, the teacher’s identity is not a matter of legitimate public concern ... disclosure of the identities of teachers who are the subject of unsubstantiated allegations serves no interest other than gossip and sensation.”

As newspapers have reported, thanks to information gained from public records laws passed by state legislatures, there has been a history of public school administrators – hopefully only a few bad apples – ignoring abuse complaints and then engaging in “passing the trash.” This practice involves an administrator – protecting the district and the administration by avoiding lawsuits – forcing a suspected teacher to resign, not informing the public and then the teacher finding a job at another district without the past being revealed.

If the emphasis is to ensure that children are not sexually abused, as it should be, how could a judge decide that an allegation of sexual misconduct against a student was “not a legitimate public interest?” Yes, public knowledge of the allegation could lead to the end of a teacher’s career even if it were proven to be false. But we’re not talking about a witch hunt. A few teachers being unjustly accused is far less important in the long run than the outing of a school district that hides evidence of patterns of misbehavior by teachers.

Judge Barbara Madsen, speaking for the dissenters, said, “It is important to bear in mind that unsubstantiated does not mean untrue.” The dissenters also said that because some districts do not adequately investigate some allegations, misconduct is recorded as unsubstantiated. As a consequence, predatory teachers may go undetected and unpunished. 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.”

The fear is that abusive teachers will be able to continue to hide behind the protective veil that some school districts put in place. Let’s hope the awareness that has occurred in recent years will help school districts realize it’s their responsibility.to provide the protective atmosphere that each child deserves.

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