A Pierce County Superior Court judge has ordered three Lincoln High School educators to tell the Tacoma School District which confidential records they gave their attorney in their effort to blow the whistle on alleged discriminatory practices at the school.
Judge Thomas Larkin last week ordered the three women to provide any private student records they shared with their attorney and her law firm prior to Oct. 1, 2014.
Larkin also said a state law designed to protect citizens who speak out from being sued by government doesn’t apply when a school employee discloses protected student educational records to an attorney who doesn’t work for the school district.
The educators — guidance counselors Truby Pete and Kathy McGatlin and history teacher Sheila Gavigan — alleged in September that Lincoln administrators are trying to boost their graduation rate by pushing struggling students away from the high school and into alternative programs.
In addition to filing a complaint with the district, the three also filed a complaint with state education officials and another that is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
The three women contend the school’s practices discriminate against students of color, who make up about three-fourths of the more than 1,400 students at Lincoln.
District officials deny the allegations. They say they're trying to help students by offering them educational options and alternative programs.
After the educators aired their complaints publicly in September, the district filed a lawsuit seeking return of student grade reports, transcripts and class information. The district says the three shared the records in violation of federal student privacy law; the district says it’s obligated under that law to notify the families of students involved, but says it can’t do that because the three women won’t identify which records they shared.
Joan Mell, attorney for the women, has maintained that whatever her clients showed her is protected by attorney-client privilege. She also said that student names and identifying information were blacked out on documents that accompanied her clients’ whistleblower complaint.
“My clients have always felt they had a right to seek out an attorney and get meaningful legal advice,” she said. She said that right is limited if the district can sue them.
But Onika Gilliam, representing the school district, said the district wasn’t asking for confidential communications between Mell and her clients. Gilliam said the district sought only the private student records, which are maintained and must be protected by the district.
Also last week, Mell’s motion to the state Court of Appeals asking for a review of Superior Court proceedings that took place in November and December was denied. However, she has also appealed Larkin’s Friday ruling.
Yet to be decided are employee disciplinary actions the district imposed against the three Lincoln educators. Those appeals are being heard as part of an administrative process outside of Larkin’s court.