Court opens records on school sex abuse investigation
WISCONSIN–The public’s interest in making its own decisions about how a school board handled charges of sexual abuse against a highly respected elementary school principal outweighed the privacy or reputational interests of the principal himself, a state appellate court in Waukesha ruled in late March, authorizing release of personnel and investigatory documents to the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.
Affirming the decision of a trial court, the appeals panel refused to allow educator Stephen Kailen and his wife to block release of the records under the state’s open records law.
Kailen in 1996 had successfully refuted recent charges of inappropriate sexual contact with elementary students by holding them on his lap while reading, holding their hands at the bus stop and rubbing them to warm them up from the cold.
However, before he could be reinstated as principal of the Madison school, the school district received new complaints of older and more serious misconduct. Kailen resigned before the investigation into those allegations was complete.
The appeals court agreed with the trial court in Madison that the public lacks and needs sufficient information to reach “either closure or judgments” on the traumatic resignation of Kailen.
The public has a strong interest in learning answers to questions about whether Kailen was “railroaded” into resigning; if allegations were fairly investigated; and if other administrators and teachers can expect fair treatment in the face of alleged misconduct, particularly of a sexual nature, toward pupils, the court said.
Kailen’s claim that disclosure would damage his privacy and reputational interests is undercut by the 38 newspaper articles before the court, which demonstrated that much of the damaging information is already public.
Although the Wisconsin open records law does not have an exemption for personnel records, the state Supreme Court in 1996 ruled that, because there is a public policy interest in safeguarding the reputations of citizens, a records custodian must “consider all relevant factors” and balance public and private interests in disclosure before releasing records.
(Kailen v. Rainwater)