Bertha Cooper

Think About It: When privacy protections don’t protect

When it comes to unresolved legal and personnel issues, privacy and transparency can’t seem to co-exist in the rule-laden environment of public institutions such as public schools and hospitals. Neither, it seems, can rules intended to protect the institution and those intended to protect the individual.

Yet they are continually in the same workspace, procedure space, policy space and many times, in the same emotional space. The concepts, regulations and rules of transparency and privacy struggle in an environment of human behavior — never an easy situation.

The struggle seems unending for the Sequim School District officials, who have been trying to explain it for at least three years.

Complaints, investigations

Just to bring you up to date, it’s three years worth of work by three school superintendents, various support staff and five school board members who no doubt spent hours trying to bring resolution to various complaints and order to what’s beginning to look like chronic turmoil.

Let’s not forget that much of the time was during a pandemic, when leadership needed to focus on new emerging obstacles to educating our community’s children.

Certain complaints triggered at least three required administrative leaves of key administrative personnel and at least three medical leaves, the most recent being a member of the school board.

The administrative leaves were required by the district to allow for investigation of complaints. We do not know the reasons for the medical leave.

Some information has been made public about this laundry list of complaints, but for the most part there is much we, the public, don’t know — which again makes the district and the complainer vulnerable to the perceptions generated and shared by misinformation. There are at least two long Facebook chains related to district drama, one about a complaint and the related procedures and one that I won’t try to explain.

What we can surmise from one Facebook chain and two lawsuits are that there are involved people not satisfied that their concerns were addressed. At least one goes so far as to say the district’s only interest is in protecting itself and not those that were concerned or aggrieved enough to file or follow a complaint, only to be told it was settled and closed or had no substance.

Keep in mind that institutions have risk management programs and, in some cases, personnel on site. The school district refers its lawsuits, and complaints that could lead to lawsuits, to a risk management pool of participating school districts whose role is to investigate and minimize any financial damage to the school district and the pool.

The district settled an $850,000 lawsuit in 2019. It has another lawsuit pending and a state human rights complaint filed, brought by persons who are dissatisfied by what they allege are inadequate, incomplete and possibly biased investigations related to complaints brought by or against them. One complaint brought last spring was presented as completed, with the resignation of the then superintendent and no reference to the alleged harm done to the complainant.

We cannot know either side when the shield of privacy darkens the light of transparency. We only know about their dissatisfaction because they went public.

Unfortunate, indeed

And we may never know as we are told by the board member around the pending resolution to censure another board member: “It may just be the public never hears the full story. That’s unfortunate, but … we’re obligated to protect everybody’s rights involved … It’s very unsatisfactory to the public — it sounds like we’re covering up, we’re not telling the truth — when in fact we are following the laws, legal advice and protecting everyone’s right in this situation.”

We can see the dilemma between the individual’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know clearly in the statement and the resolution proposed to censure the board member.

No one can say what the incident was because it is protected by rules of confidentiality which the board member is alleged to have violated.

Does that sound as nonsensical to you as it does to me?

Yet, the board must think it is egregious enough to warrant not only censure but to ask for his resignation from the board. The district must have been damaged in some demonstrable way that could be explained to the accused board member and the public for that matter. Asking for a person to resign an elected position is reputation-ending stuff, left to speculation and characterization by others which could be far worse than the truth.

It and all the other “protections” sound out of control to me in that there are too many dissatisfied people, too many soiled reputations, too many lawsuits. One has to wonder when the power to decide is entrusted to skilled investigators whose mission includes protecting the institution from reputation and financial damage.

The board and the administration need to do much more than they are doing. When people are not satisfied and see no other recourse, they go to a higher authority and procedure if there is one, to legal channels and as a last resort, go public.

Call for independent investigation

The district would do well to spend its resources on an independent investigation that would promise a complete and thorough hearing of all sides in a confidential environment and to produce a final report on the system issues driving the legal turmoil and propose needed, if any, corrective actions. At some point, the community and its taxpayers have the right to know.

It’s not good enough to close investigations and leave those wounded in the process without recourse except to sue and/or go public.

What lesson is being taught?

Bertha Cooper, a featured columnist in the Sequim Gazette, spent her career years in health care administration, program development and consultation. Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim more than 20 years. Reach her at columnists@sequimgazette.com.

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