Opinion

Lake Washington School District needs new policy to inform parents of sexual misconduct | Editorial

The Lake Washington School District acted quickly when a Lake Washington High School student alleged that Kangs basketball coach Barry Johnson sexually harassed her late last year.

The female student accused Johnson, 38, of sexual harassment on Dec. 13, 2011; the district placed the coach on administrative leave the same day, in accordance with the LWSD’s sexual harassment policy.

An April 14 Seattle Times article lauded the district for following its procedures: “The (case shows) that despite high-profile cases that could be viewed as procedural failures, such as the case at Penn State involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky, the system can be effective when alleged abuse occurs.”

We commend the district for doing what it was supposed to do, placing the coach on administrative leave and protecting students.

However, that is not enough.

Most parents are just learning about the incident through the media – four months after the student brought forth these allegations. Why didn’t the LWSD inform parents about the alleged misconduct as soon as the district placed the coach on administrative leave?

According to Kathryn Reith, LWSD communications director, the district essentially did.

In a vague email, and one that was hardly cause for concern, the school’s athletic director notified basketball parents on Dec. 14, a day after the incident: “Currently, Barry Johnson is on leave of absence from his assignments at LWHS.”

The email emphasized the upcoming holiday basketball tournament over winter break, asking parents to contact the director with questions concerning the trip to San Diego.

Reith said the district also included in a recent board agenda that Johnson resigned on March 13.

Parents have the right to know the circumstances surrounding such cases of misconduct that may involve their children. The LWSD should inform all parents of any alleged sexual misconduct immediately.

The district has policies to remove a staff member when an allegation is raised, but there are no policies in place to notify parents in the community.

So why not adopt a new policy?

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) recently did after outraged parents criticized the district for giving them no explanation when it pulled teacher Mark Berndt from class at Miramonte Elementary in early 2011, according to the Los Angeles Times.

A year later, the teacher was charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct, including allegations that he spoon-fed semen to blindfolded students.

Before Berndt’s arrest, LAUSD limited the release of information, saying they didn’t want to risk compromising the investigation, said the Los Angeles Times report.

Parents criticized the district for not informing them, saying it created the impression that LAUSD was deliberately withholding information.

In response, the LAUSD adopted a new mandate a few weeks ago that schools must notify parents within 72 hours if a teacher is removed from a classroom for allegations of sexual misconduct with students.

Under the mandate, parents won’t be informed of the teacher’s name, grade level or other identifying information, to protect the presumption of innocence.

It’s an appropriate mandate, and one that the LWSD should consider.

Not releasing such information causes public mistrust. Parents and the community want to hear the information from the school district, not just the media.

And they have the right to. This would also give other potential victims the opportunity to come forward as well.

The LWHS student who alleged that Johnson sexually harassed her feels the same. In an email she sent out on March 3 informing the school community about what allegedly happened to her, she wrote:  “… Anyone who wants to read (this) can and I’d encourage you to if you’re interested because I feel like every person at school has some sort of right to know what’s going on around them and why.”

It takes some courage for a victim to come forth and go so far as to broadcast to the school community what allegedly happened to him or her. So what’s holding the school district back?

 

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