SEQUIM — The Sequim School District on Thursday refused a request for public information into the reasons two top administrators are on leave, citing their right to privacy “due to the highly offensive nature of the allegations.”
Superintendent Dr. Robert Clark was placed on leave Oct. 22 following a complaint, while Sequim High School Principal Shawn Langston was placed on leave the following day.
Acting Superintendent Jane Pryne said in late October that the incidents are separate and have not involved law enforcement.
Both complaint investigations are being handled internally through the district’s human resources department as well as risk management staff, Pryne said.
On Thursday, in response to a public records request from the Sequim Gazette, the school district said via email it is withholding all records regarding both investigations, citing RCW 42.56.230 and indicating the records can be withheld because the documents contain “identity of employee subject to an unsustained internal investigation of misconduct, release of which violate the employee’s right to privacy due to the highly offensive nature of the allegations.”
The allegations were not described.
Also in its response, the school district cited section 3 of the state law, which reads in full: “Personal information in files maintained for employees, appointees, or elected officials of any public agency to the extent that disclosure would violate their right to privacy.”
This portion of the state law doesn’t specify that allegations that are “highly offensive” in nature can be withheld.
In RCW 42.56.050, however, Washington state law notes that “A person’s ‘right to privacy,’ ‘right of privacy,’ ‘privacy,’ or ‘personal privacy,’ as these terms are used in this chapter, is invaded or violated only if disclosure of information about the person: (1) Would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (2) is not of legitimate concern to the public.”
State officials note in the Open Government Resource Manual (Chapter 2), that “if the misconduct is substantiated or disciplinary action has been taken, these records are to be disclosed because they are of legitimate interest to the public, even if embarrassing to the employee,” and later, in the same section, “unsubstantiated allegations are considered “personal information” that can be exempt from production if the standard of the ‘right to privacy’ in RCW 42.56.050 is met.”
Pryne was unavailable for comment Thursday.
In response to a Sequim Gazette records request received by the school district on Oct. 23 regarding Clark’s placement in leave, the district declined to release 23 emails between the Sequim School District and an unidentified investigating attorney, citing the above state law as well as RCW 42.56.070 that protect communication between attorneys and clients.
District officials also identified and declined to release 11 other documents — seven emails, a formal complaint letter and response letter, an administrative leave letter and letter of claim receipt — along with text messages between Human Resources Director Victoria Balint and board President Brandino Gibson.
In response to a Sequim Gazette records request received by the school district on Oct. 27 regarding Langston’s placement on leave, district officials declined to release six emails between the Sequim School District and the unidentified investigating attorney, also citing the above state law as well as RCW 42.56.070 that protect communication between attorneys and clients.
District officials identified five other documents — three emails between the district and the complainant, a response to complaint letter and administrative leave letter — that relate to the investigation but declined to release.
Clark and Langston are the second and third Sequim School District administrators this school year to go on leave after Shelley Jefferson, Helen Haller Elementary assistant principal, went on leave this summer. An investigation remains open with the Lummi Nation Police Department into allegations that she and her husband Francis allegedly abused an unnamed foster child.
Clark is in his second year as superintendent in Sequim after he was hired in July 2019. He most recently worked as superintendent of the Milton-Freewater School District in Oregon, a job he held since 2013.
Langston was hired in June 2002 to lead the high school, accepting the job just a few weeks after his wife Shelley was hired as the school district’s special education director.
Michael Dashiell is the editor of the Sequim Gazette of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which also is composed of other Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News and Forks Forum. Reach him at [email protected].