Lincoln High staff members send letters instead of appearing before Tacoma school officials

Three Lincoln High School staff members called to separate meetings Monday to explain their actions to Tacoma Public Schools officials decided instead to send explanatory letters to the school district.

The three — guidance counselors Truby Pete and Kathy McGatlin and history teacher Sheila Gavigan — have alleged that Lincoln is improperly steering students to alternative programs and otherwise denying underachieving students the right to a full high school education.

In the course of the three veteran educators reporting the allegations — first to their attorney and then to the news media — the school district said the three released student records that should have remained confidential. District officials asked the three to attend meetings Monday that would help determine if disciplinary action is warranted.

The district last week also filed a lawsuit against the three women and their attorney, seeking the return of student grade reports, transcripts and class information that the district says they shared in violation of federal student privacy law.

Joan Mell, attorney for the Lincoln staffers, said Monday that her clients are being retaliated against for blowing the whistle on the actions of Lincoln administrators. She said her clients assert that they haven’t disclosed anything confidential.

She said the three consulted with representatives of the Tacoma Education Association over the weekend and that the union is now involved in the dispute.

Mell said they are waiting to hear from the school district about what happens next.

School district attorney Shannon McMinimee said Monday that the district will consider the letters from the employees when making a final disciplinary determination.

She said the district human resources department will make a recommendation to Superintendent Carla Santorno, possibly as early as next week.

McMinimee said the records issue arises because of student privacy protections afforded under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

“We are obligated under federal law to take all reasonable steps to protect students and their families,” McMinimee said. “It is an important responsibility. The district takes it seriously.”

She said it is particularly significant if the guidance counselors, who often have access to student records, misunderstand FERPA.

While Mell argues that school employees should be able to present all relevant information when consulting with their attorney, McMinimee said the three educators should have made a public records request.

McMinimee said neither the educators nor Mell had the authority to decide how student records should be handled, and which information might be redacted, or blacked out.

In addition, she said, federal law requires that students and families receive notice about the release of those records outside of the school district.

“I can’t give notice to the families because I don’t know what was given to (Mell),” McMinimee said.

In regard to the lawsuit, McMinimee said that “all we want are our records back. If they give them back, we would dismiss the lawsuit.”

Mell believes that a school district suing staff members over documents in this manner is “apparently unprecedented.”

She said the issue over the documents has complicated the due process procedures her clients are entitled to.