Fearing misconduct, lawmakers consider opening teacher personnel files
September 15, 2022
Spurred by constituent accounts of harassment and bullying by teachers and coaches, the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee debated Tuesday how to best hold K-12 employees accountable when they behave inappropriately with students.
“I think we have instances where we need to do a better job of looking out for the safety of our kids,” said Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne). “We need to figure out a better process so that parents and students have confidence in these institutions.”
Ellis proposed two pieces of draft legislation to address the issue. One bill would amend the Safe School and Climate Act to make clear that no person, including school and district employees, administrators and volunteers is exempt from district policies prohibiting “harassment, intimidation or bullying.”
The other, more contentious draft bill, would open certain parts of K-12 personnel files to public inspection.
Under current Wyoming Public Records Act law, personnel files are not considered public records. Ellis’s draft legislation would remove that exemption for certain components of school district employees’ personnel files.
This isn’t the first time the Legislature has considered expanding the public’s access to certain personnel records. In 2021, the Judiciary Committee sponsored a failed bill making the personnel files of high-ranking state employees public record.
The issue also came up when several Wyoming news organizations (including WyoFile) sued the University of Wyoming for personnel records related to the demotion of Laurie Nichols, the university’s former president. A district court judge ultimately ruled in favor of releasing the records to the press.
In the draft K-12 personnel files bill, performance reviews, social security information and home addresses would still be considered protected, Ellis explained. “Investigations or disciplinary proceedings” that result in “substantiated allegations of professional misconduct,” however, would become public information under the proposal.
Wyoming Education Association President Grady Hutcherson voiced concerns about the draft bill, noting that as a male second grade teacher “all it would take to destroy my career would be one false allegation. That’s all it would take.”
Hutcherson said while he was happy to work with lawmakers going forward, he thought “that with this initial draft bill, now, that false accusation can then just be moved to the press, regardless of what the outcomes of any investigation would have been.”
“What happens in the real world is people hear the accusation, but don’t accept the exoneration, because it’s easier to gossip about the allegation,” said WEA lobbyist Tate Mullen.
Mullen testified educators and support staff face unfounded allegations. He gave the example of a teacher touching a distracted kid’s shoulder in a lunch line and asking the student to “keep the line moving.” Mullen said a parent could lodge a complaint against the teacher for “sexual touching.”
Even if the teacher was ultimately exonerated, the complaint would remain on their public record if the proposed measure became law, Mullen said.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) agreed it was an important issue to address but also noted the Legislature needed to balance “protecting people’s privacy and keeping unfounded allegations from getting out into the general public and doing considerable damage when somebody is falsely accused.”
“I don’t want false allegations to mean somebody loses their job,” said Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie). She suggested one potential solution would be to make disciplinary outcomes available to the public rather than just a procedure or investigation that was ultimately dismissed.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) said he did not want to single out educators alone, and felt it would be more appropriate for the judiciary committee to tackle the topic and “figure out how to create a universal appropriate exemption for where there is a chronic or habitual offender, and they’re being protected by their personnel records and that needs to be publicized.”
Ellis noted her draft bills still required additional work, but wanted to get initial conversations on the topic started.
The committee ultimately decided to continue discussions of the two proposed bills when it meets next in Cheyenne on Oct. 10.