Tacoma Public Schools officials recently filed suit against a teacher and two guidance counselors at Lincoln High School, alleging the staff members violated privacy laws designed to keep student records confidential.
An attorney for the educators says her clients have broken no privacy laws. She says the district's lawsuit is retaliation for the staffers going public with concerns the school's scheduling practices are pushing too many students out of Lincoln and into alternative school settings.
But district officials say the practice, which attorney Joan Mell and her clients disparagingly call "cherry-picking," is part of a coordinated effort to ensure the district's most vulnerable students can graduate from high school.
The lawsuit names four defendants: Lincoln High School counselors Truby Pete and Kathy McGatlin, history teacher Sheila Gavigan and the law firm of Mell, their attorney.
District spokesman Dan Voelpel says the Lincoln staffers printed out copies of records and gave them to various news organizations to illustrate their concerns.
In a Sept. 4 piece in Tacoma's News Tribune newspaper, the educators expressed concerns that "the school is attempting to jettison struggling students to boost its graduation rate and image." Lincoln has historically been the city's lowest-performing high school.
A Sept. 3 KING5 story struck a similar note, citing "emails and schedules that show the push to redirect those students."
Vulnerable Students 'Excluded' Or Targeted For Help?
At the end of last school year, based on the success of a smaller pilot program, Lincoln High School staff voted to lengthen its school day to give students more time for homework help and other enrichment activities. Additionally, Voelpel said the district created an "academic acceleration policy," directing high schools to automatically enroll students into the next-highest class.
Mell says these changes have not only tied her clients' hands in advising students, but have strained the school's resources, effectively excluding some students.
"We're not dealing with a system where you're able to fund that kind of targeted education at the scale of Lincoln. Necessarily, you're excluding someone," Mell said. "The excluded students, in their opinion, are those who are typically disenfranchised — the poor, the minorities, the students who have English as a second language."
These are the students, her clients contend, who are "cherry-picked" to move to the district's Reengagement Center, an alternative high school setting for 17- to 21-year-olds who are "significantly credit-deficient."
"Lincoln is their high school," Mell said. "They should be able to get an education at Lincoln up to the age of 21."
But Voelpel says the point of the Reengagement Center, as defined by the 2010 state law behind it and behind similar schools serving around 60 districts statewide, is to target help for students who've dropped out or are at the most risk of dropping out. Cherry-picking, he said, is the wrong term.
"We're simply trying to find kids who are struggling or no longer connected with school a path that they can get their diploma and graduate," Voelpel said. "You should talk to some of the kids who are now graduating from the Reengagement Center ... Once they got reconnected at the Reengagement Center, it gave them a whole new lease on their education."
'Not Within Their Purview To Release That Information'
In going public, Mell says the educators did not disclose any information that would identify students. She says the district knows this because it searched her clients' computers.
By filing a lawsuit, "the district is deliberately and intentionally trying to silence them and punish them for speaking out and documenting a problem that exists," Mell said.
Voelpel says he doesn't know whether the educators had blacked out student names on the documents they gave out, though names aren't the only piece of information that could identify a child.
"Even if they did redact the names, it's still not within their purview as a teacher or a counselor to release that information to the public," Voelpel said.
A Pierce County Superior Court judge will hear preliminary arguments in the case on Oct. 31. Mell has said she's asked the district to go into arbitration on the case.
Apart from the lawsuit, Tacoma Public Schools officials are also considering disciplinary action against the three Lincoln staffers, Voelpel said.