Accused Teachers Have Privacy Right in Records

Bellevue John Does 1-11 v. Bellevue School District No. 405 (2008)

The Washington Supreme Court has held that school districts need not publicly identify teachers alleged to have had sexual misconduct with students if the allegations are not substantiated. The decision came in Bellevue John Does 1-11 v. Bellevue School District No. 405, 2008 WL 2929683, No. 78603-8 (7/31/08), a case brought by teachers when the Seattle Times sought the school district’s records in their cases.

The case construed Washington’s Public Disclosure Act, RCW 42.17, recently recodified as the Public Records Act, RCW 42.56.

The court did not say that any school records were completely exempt from disclosure under the Public Disclosure Act. Rather, it decided that school districts could remove teachers’ names and other identifying information from records before disclosing the records.

The court agreed with news organizations that the public has a legitimate interest in knowing about particular incidents of teacher misconduct, and in knowing how well school districts investigate sex abuse allegations. It said, though, the public does not need to know the identities of teachers against whom allegations are not substantiated. Identifying such teachers, the court said, would “serve no interest other than gossip and sensation.” And the “mere allegation … [could] hold the teacher up to hatred and ridicule in the community.”

The court also said that the public could evaluate a school district’s performance in investigating an allegation of teacher sexual misconduct without knowing the identity of the teacher.

The decision applies only to teachers against whom the sex abuse allegations are unsubstantiated. The supreme court acknowledged that inability to substantiate an allegation does not mean that the abuse did not happen. A lower court had construed the PDA to permit withholding the identities only of teachers against whom the allegations were “patently false.” The supreme court said it was impractical for the courts to distinguish between allegations that were “patently false” and those that were merely “unsubstantiated.”

The supreme court found support for withholding a teacher’s identity whenever an allegation is unsubstantiated in another Washington statute. That law governs a school district when it provides information about one of its former teachers to a school district contemplating hiring that teacher. The law requires the reporting school district to report allegations of sexual misconduct only if they have been substantiated. “If the legislature did not require release of unsubstantiated claims between school districts,” the court observed, “it is difficult to imagine that the legislature intended public disclosure of the same.”

Three justices dissented. They said the court’s decision “frustrates the enormously important goal of protecting children from predators.”