The Tacoma Public Schools district plans to investigate allegations from three staff members that Lincoln High School is improperly steering students to alternative programs, denying them access to courses they need and otherwise denying underachieving students the right to a full high school education.
The district also has sued the three staff members and their attorney and is threatening the staff members with disciplinary action.
The district says the three — guidance counselors Truby Pete and Kathy McGatlin and history teacher Sheila Gavigan — released confidential student records as part of their efforts to take their concerns public.
Joan Mell, attorney for the three women, said the records contained no student identifying information.
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The lawsuit seeks the return of student grade reports, transcripts and class information the district says were shared with “unauthorized persons, to include the news media.”
Release of the records without parental or student consent violates district rules and federal law, the district contends.
Allegations from the three educators about Lincoln surfaced publicly last month in reports by The News Tribune and KING5 television in Seattle.
The school district has notified the three women that they must meet Mondaywith school district officials to respond to the district’s accusations concerning the student records. District officials then will decide on any disciplinary action.
“This is their opportunity to tell us anything the district needs to hear before the district makes a decision,” said Tacoma Public Schools attorney Shannon McMinimee.
Mell said she plans to attend the three Monday meetings. She believes the district’s lawsuit and its disciplinary threats are part of a strategy to distract from what her clients feel is the heart of the issue.
The staff members contend Lincoln is “cherry-picking” the best students while sending struggling students out the door or into online classes to improve its graduation statistics.
Principal Pat Erwin has denied the charge.
Mell said her clients hope to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s office of civil rights on Monday.
The school district has decided to conduct an internal investigation into the allegations. Doug Hostetter, Tacoma Public Schools director of secondary education, will conduct the district probe.
The three staff members say they were told to refer students who were behind on credits but working to catch up out of Lincoln and into the district’s downtown Re-Engagement Center.
The center was founded in 2013 to serve students ages 17 through 21 who have either dropped out or who are in danger of doing so.
Mell, in a Sept. 11 letter to Superintendent Carla Santorno, lists other problems that she says warrant investigation.
The letter states the district improperly granted students credits for technical courses like business English but reported them on student transcripts as non-technical classes. The letter says this amounts to falsifying records.
Mell’s letter also said her clients criticized Lincoln administrators for scheduling students into Advanced Placement courses when they were not capable of performing at an advanced level.
McMinimee, in a letter to Mell, said the district would not include either of those allegations in its internal investigation.
She said district policy has established core academic course equivalencies for career and technical education courses. The letter also spells out the district’s academic acceleration policy, which is designed to give more students access to advanced level courses.
Mell had earlier asked for a hearing before an outside administrative law judge and requested that an outside mediator work with her clients and the district.
“I can’t underestimate how intimidating and frightening this is for educators who are trying to do the right thing,” Mell said.
McMinimee said the district believes an administrative law judge hearing is not warranted, because the educators’ complaints are about administrative decisions and their performance evaluations.
She said neither issue falls under district policies or state law that pertain to employees who report improper government action.
Mell said documents her clients shared had student identifying information blacked out. She said they didn’t seek out the records but that they were included in her clients’ most recent performance evaluations.
Pete and McGatlin said last month that, as a result of their advocacy for students, they received negative performance evaluations for the first time in their careers.
McMinimee said the evaluations might appear different to employees because of changes in the evaluation system mandated by new state laws. She said the new system is more comprehensive.