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Newspaper wins release of documents regarding teachers caught in compromising position

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    News Media Update         MONTANA         Freedom of Information         March 25, 2005    

Newspaper wins release of documents regarding teachers caught in compromising position

  • The state Supreme Court rejected an appeal by school officials that teacher disciplinary records should be secret, sparking a lower court judge to release even more documents.

March 25, 2005 — Documents related to the suspension of two high school teachers caught presumably having sex on school property were released to the Billings Gazette March 17 after the state high court rejected an appeal from school officials.

The Montana Supreme Court’s denial of the school’s appeal caused District Court Judge Susan P. Watters of Billings to reissue a November decision ordering release of documents regarding the suspension of two Skyview High School teachers, Paulette Gerschmel and David Maier, who were found in a “compromising position” by a student, the Billings Gazette reported.

Teachers “occupy positions of public trust” and should “have no reasonable expectation of privacy” in release of their names in disciplinary matters, Watters ruled March 15. The decision, nearly identical to the November ruling, was broader and ordered release of 42 documents, 20 more than she previously deemed public.

According to a brief filed by the Gazette supporting disclosure of the documents, the student walked into a room between two school locker rooms and saw two adults on top of each other and one adult’s buttocks. Maier, who urged the student not to tell anyone, was suspended without pay for four days; Gerschmel was suspended for two days.

After Watters’ November ruling, Billings High School District No. 2 appealed. Watters’ March 15 order amended the previous ruling by ordering an additional 29 documents to be disclosed with third-party names redacted. She also ordered redaction of Social Security numbers in three documents and third-party names in two documents that were the subject of her previous ruling.

In ruling that teachers have no expectation of privacy in their roles as public employees, Watters likened them to police officers and cited the case Bozeman Daily Chronicle v. City of Bozeman Police Dept. That case says “that not only do police officers not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their identities when they are subject to disciplinary action, they also do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the documents prepared in connection with the investigation of misconduct that leads to disciplinary action, ” Watters wrote.

Gazette attorney Martha Sheehy credits Watters for speeding up the usually slow process, which she has seen take up to 18 months. Watters “got right on it,” she said.

(Billings High School District No. 2 v. The Billings Gazette, Media Counsel: Martha Sheehy, Billings, Mont.)AB

© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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