Another volley in a battle between three Lincoln High School educators and Tacoma Public Schools over allegations of student dumping was launched this month when the district issued a second round of suspensions without pay.
The three women — guidance counselors Truby Pete and Kathy McGatlin, and history teacher Sheila Gavigan — remain on the job while they appeal both sets of disciplinary actions.
The educators went public at the start of the school year with allegations that administrators at Lincoln are pushing struggling students away from the high school into alternative programs so Lincoln can boost its graduation rate.
District officials deny the allegation. They say they’re trying to help students by offering them educational options, such as the downtown Willie Stewart Academy. It has a program designed to help credit-deficient students and dropouts obtain a diploma.
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Pete, McGatlin and Gavigan were first suspended for 10 days each in October after the district accused them of disclosing confidential student records to their attorney and others, and failing to return them to the district when asked.
On March 2, the district issued letters to the three detailing further suspensions — 20 days for McGatlin and Gavigan, and 25 days for Pete — for actions the district says occurred after October.
The district has also sued the three in Pierce County Superior Court, demanding return of the records. Judge Thomas Larkin ordered the appointment of a special master to sort through the tangled legal issues involved. That case is pending.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights said it would investigate allegations from the Lincoln educators that the school’s practices discriminate against students on the basis of race and other factors. About three-fourths of the more than 1,400 students at Lincoln are students of color.
In the latest disciplinary actions, the district contends the educators broke district policies by giving confidential student records to their attorney without first obtaining consent from students or parents. The district also says the three violated policy by giving their attorney access to their school-issued laptops.
The district further accuses Pete of improperly allowing a student to transport another student’s file from Pete’s office to the school’s guidance office main desk. But Joan Mell, attorney for the three women, said using a student aide for the task was routine.
Mell says her clients disclosed additional records to her office in response to a verbal order from Larkin that came during a November court proceeding. During the hearing, according to court documents, Larkin said he couldn’t make a decision without first reviewing documents in private.
In December, Mell provided the court with a DVD of documents from her clients. She maintains that she’s entitled to see documents her clients share with her as part of the attorney-client privilege.
“If we can’t look at this stuff, I’m going to have a hard time representing these individuals,” Mell said.
School district attorney Shannon McMinimee said Larkin never issued a written court order concerning the thousands of documents that were subsequently turned over to the court.
“There was a lot of back and forth,” McMinimee said of the November hearing. “There was no order in place authorizing disclosure of confidential student records.”
Had such an order been issued, she said it would have been directed to the district, which is the custodian of the documents, and not to the employees.
McMinimee said that, based on the volume of documents, it’s possible the two Lincoln counselors disclosed documents relating to all the students they work with.
McMinimee said that “it is truly unfortunate that these three ladies keep engaging in violations of district policy, and each violation is worse and more expansive than the last one.”
But Mell said the district is retaliating against her clients for trying to report misconduct by school officials.
“(Pete, McGatlin and Gavigan) care about what they do, and they care about kids,” Mell said.