Saturday, August 2, 2008

Protecting Children

This guest post was written by public school teacher Ellis Reyes, whom I thank for stating the problem from a teacher's point of view.

Apparently basic rights also include protecting predatory teachers from having their criminal behaviors disclosed to the public. In yesterday's decision, Justice Fairhurst voted to conceal the names of teachers accused of molesting children unless they were found guilty of sexual misconduct or some form of disciplinary action was taken. While I am acutely sensitive to the possibility of false accusations against teachers, I find Justice Fairhurst's decision faulty on several counts.

First of all, if a teacher is accused of such behavior, he or she is placed immediately on administrative leave. When that occurs, everyone in the community knows that something is going on and the rumor mill kicks into high gear. The teacher is then and forever persona non grata in that district and to assume otherwise is just naive.

Second, in the world of tenured employment and tight district budgets, isn't it simply easier for a district to ask a teacher to leave quietly than to embark upon an investigation that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and turn up nothing? What then? The teacher gets a job in a neighboring district and continues his/her repulsive behavior until the process repeats itself; for thirty years. No sexual misconduct was ever proven and no formal disciplinary action taken so this predator is able to fly beneath the radar for an entire career. As the parent of two young children, this bothers me a great deal.

Finally, as public employees, and particularly as employees placed in positions in which we work directly with children, I believe that the greater good is served by aggressively protecting the children. As a direct extension, teachers' workplace behavior should be a matter of public record. I don't even think it's negotiable. These types of issues should not be investigated behind the scenes. They should be as transparent as possible. If someone is accused, the public should know. If they are vindicated, then the public should know, along with the circumstances surrounding the investigation. If someone was not able to be prosecuted due to a lack of evidence, that is significantly different than someone who is actually innocent and was investigated because a student lied.

Do teachers and other public employees have privacy rights? Absolutely. But do we have a greater obligation to protect students from predators with teaching certificates? I think so.

4 comments:

SgtDad said...

Mr. Reyes:

Well said. On a more general level, in my view any act or omission of a public employee in the course and scope of his or her public duty is a public matter. This case creates an exception to the PDA that will likely swallow the statute completely.

There are obvious exceptions, of course e.g., ongoing criminal investigations.

Pen said...

Thank you for making this post. It made it so much easier for me to choose who to vote for.

Obviously, if someone is not found guilty, they should not be punished simply for being accused. Fairhursts ruling went straight to the idea of being innocent until proven guilty. To try to deny the wisdom of her vote is to endorse false accusations. People with no integrity would willingly use false accusations to blemish a good teachers reputation simply for political or personal gain.

To ignore or worse, pretend ignorance of such acts is naive. I'll vote for Fairhurst.

Michael J. Bond said...

Pen,

The post was from a public school teacher.

It might add credibility to your criticism if you had read the decision. The records at issue had nothing to do with teachers who were "found not guilty".

I am a strong advocate of the right of privacy for all people including teachers, whose job is hard enough without also dealing with false allegations.

The only issue in the case was whether the teacher's name was a private matter. Justice Fairhurst's decision shows a lack of experience with what actually happens when an allegation is made against a teacher. Those of us who have children in the public schools have such experience.

What happens in every case goes like this. The teacher is put on administrative leave until an investigation is concluded, and all of the parents whose children are in that teacher's class are informed that a substitute will be in the class. By this time the students have wildly and frequently inaccurately told their friends and parents about it.

Many times the union assists with counsel and the teacher is advised to say nothing and let the lawyers do the talking.

Justice Fairhurst's decision ignores those realities by asserting that the name of the person is "private information" when in fact there is nothing private about it as it has become widely disseminated public knowledge.

And ultimately this ruling harms those teachers who have the most to gain by more complete transparency -- those teachers who have in fact done nothing wrong and have been falsely accused. And they are harmed because a finding of "not substantiated" is not a finding of "not guility".

Those are the practical aspects of the ruling. The legal aspect of it is this: the legislature specifically decided what the scope of the right of privacy would be in the Public Records context and this decision ignores that legislative decision.

Lee said...

Mr. Bond

While your response to Pen's post makes sense the original post casts doubt on your willingness to protect those who have been falsely accused. The rumors that a community spreads and the official publications of a governmental organization are two different things. People may say what they want, the government however can not. I agree with Pen. For Faihurst to have done otherwise would allow the disgruntled student to potentially start their own series of witch hunts without any protection for the accused. I will vote for Fairhurst.