Sequim schools won’t disclose information regarding on-leave administrators

The Sequim School District on Nov. 12 refused a request for public information into the reasons two top administrators are on leave, citing their right to privacy “due to the highly offensive nature of the allegations.”

Sequim schools superintendent Dr. Robert Clark was placed on leave Oct. 22 following a complaint, while Sequim Shawn Langston was placed on leave the following day.

Acting Sequim schools superintendent Jane Pryne said in late October the incidents are separate and have not involved law enforcement.

Pryne said on Nov. 13 she didn’t have an anticipated timeline for when the investigations into either complaint would be resolved.

“In my experience they usually take as along as they take,” she said.

On Nov. 12, in response to a public records request, the school district said it is withholding all records regarding both investigations, citing RCW 42.56.230 and indicating that the records can be withheld because the documents contain “identity of employee subject to an unsustained internal investigation of misconduct, release of which violate the employee’s right to privacy due to the highly offensive nature of the allegations.”

The allegations were not described.

Also in its response, the school district cited section 3 of the state law, which reads in full: “Personal information in files maintained for employees, appointees, or elected officials of any public agency to the extent that disclosure would violate their right to privacy.”

This portion of the state law doesn’t specify that allegations that are “highly offensive” in nature can be withheld.

In RCW 42.56.050, however, Washington state law notes that “A person’s ‘right to privacy,’ ‘right of privacy,’ ‘privacy,’ or ‘personal privacy,’ as these terms are used in this chapter, is invaded or violated only if disclosure of information about the person: (1) Would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (2) is not of legitimate concern to the public.”

State officials note in the Open Government Resource Manual (Chapter 2), that “if the misconduct is substantiated or disciplinary action has been taken, these records are to be disclosed because they are of legitimate interest to the public, even if embarrassing to the employee,” and later, in the same section, “unsubstantiated allegations are considered “personal information” that can be exempt from production if the standard of the ‘right to privacy’ in RCW 42.56.050 is met.”

In response to a Sequim Gazette records request received by the school district on Oct. 23 regarding Clark’s placement in leave, the district declined to release 23 emails between the Sequim School District and an unidentified investigating attorney, citing the above state law as well as RCW 42.56.070 state law that protect communication between attorneys and clients. District officials also identified and declined to release 11 other documents — seven emails, a formal complaint letter and response letter, an administrative leave letter and letter of claim receipt — along with text messages between human resources director Victoria Balint and board resident Brandino Gibson.

In response to a Sequim Gazette records request received by the school district on Oct. 27 regarding Langston’s placement in leave, district officials declined to release six emails between the Sequim School District and the unidentified investigating attorney, also citing the above state law as well as RCW 42.56.070 state law that protect communication between attorneys and clients. District officials identified five other documents — three emails between the district and the complainant, a response to complaint letter and administrative leave letter — that relate to the investigation but declined to release.

Both complaint investigations are being handled internally through the district’s human resources department as well as risk management staff, Pryne said.

The Washington Schools Risk Management Pool provides insurance coverage and services to Washington state public schools. In addition to assisting districts with complaints such as those against Clark and Langston, they organization also partners with schools to make sure amenities such as buildings and playgrounds are safe, Pryne said.

Clark and Langston are the second and third Sequim School District administrators this school year to go on leave after Shelley Jefferson, Helen Haller Elementary assistant principal, went on leave this summer. An investigation remains open with the Lummi Nation Police Department into allegations that she and her husband Francis allegedly abused an unnamed foster child.

Clark is in his second year as superintendent in Sequim after being hired in July 2019. He most recently worked as superintendent of the Milton-Freewater School District in Oregon, a job he held since 2013.

Langston was hired as Sequim High School’s lead administrator in June 2002.

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