A Thurston County judge has ordered the Olympia School District to pay $14,000 for violating the Washington Public Records Act.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Paula Casey had earlier found that the district violated the act by failing to disclose a single record to an attorney during his litigation on behalf of the family of a 6-year-old girl who was molested by a school bus driver.
The withheld record was a draft letter sent by the district’s former communications director, Peter Rex, to Olympia principals, providing a template for what the district could share with the public about the former bus driver’s arrest the day after he was placed in custody.
“I will find that it’s inexcusable neglect that he did not provide that record,” Casey said in her oral ruling Aug. 5.
Former Reeves Middle School and Hansen Elementary School bus driver, Gary Shafer, 32, of Port Orchard, was sentenced in August to 141/2 years to life in prison for sexually assaulting two 6-year-old girls in December, while he was, according to the school district, acting as a “helper” on a route for Centennial Elementary School.
Casey’s written order requiring the district to pay Tacoma attorney Darrell Cochran $14,000 was stamped and entered into the public record Wednesday afternoon. The award includes attorney’s fees for the work Cochran performed in filing the public records lawsuit, and penalties for the number of days that the document was withheld.
The district’s new communications director, Ryan Betz, said Thursday that the district mistakenly did not include the draft letter among the 544 pages of discovery originally provided to Cochran after he filed his suit.
“We provided Mr. Cochran with all the information he requested,” Betz said. “However we overlooked one piece of that information that was subsequently discovered, at which point we provided that information to him. It’s an unfortunate oversight, and we take these public records requests very seriously. We will continue to be diligent and we will redouble our efforts to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
Betz added that the document that was initially withheld was meant for public consumption, because it instructed principals on what they could share with parents about Shafer’s arrest.
But Cochran said Thursday that the letter found by Casey to have been negligently withheld by the school district “created a fiction that Shafer was on the bus for a legitimate reason” at the time the molestation of the 6-year-olds occurred.
Rex’s letter reads in part: “In December, Mr. Shafer rode as a passenger on a route serving Centennial Elementary School (seemingly to learn the route) and while on the bus, he allegedly touched two students inappropriately.”
In April, Cochran filed a lawsuit against the district on behalf of the family of one of the 6-year-old girls, alleging the district “breached its duty and was negligent in the supervision and protection over its students during school hours.”
Later that month, Cochran filed a separate complaint against the district, alleging that it failed to comply with the public records act by withholding pertinent documents related to the district’s investigation of Shafer after the allegations of molestation came to light.
According to exhibits attached to Cochran’s public records complaint, the school district shared 544 pages of material with Cochran in response to his request for documents “concerning child sexual abuse allegations against Olympia School District employee Gary D. Shafer.”
A copy of an email Cochran sent to the school district in late March expresses puzzlement that the documents forwarded to him contain “not much in the way of any investigatory materials by the district.”
Cochran’s email to the district’s former public records coordinator Peter Rex states, “You indicate in your cover letter that nothing has been withheld under any claim of privilege. I want to make sure I am not misunderstanding what you have stated. The lack of records would lead me to believe that the District has made absolutely no inquiry into the molestation of its students by one of his employees. This strikes me as highly unusual, highly unlikely or simply a miscommunication by either you or me.”
Rex, and the school district’s attorney, Valerie Hughes, state repeatedly in communications with Cochran that “the District did not do an investigation into Mr. Shafer’s misconduct.”
Cochran said Thursday that other documents were withheld by the district until after he filed his public records lawsuit, but Casey did not find the withholding of those documents to be in violation of the records act, he said. In one of those documents, an email to a school official, a parent discusses Shafer’s presence on school buses when he was not working as a driver.
“(W)hen he doesn’t have a mid-day route, (Shafer) chooses to ride Mario’s bus and sit in the same seat as my daughter and (another student)alone,” the email reads in part. “He is not on the clock when he rides Mario’s bus, just ‘bored’ with nothing else to do.”
Shafer had worked for the Olympia School District since October 2005. He was placed on administrative leave the first week of January, when the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office contacted him about the allegations against him. Shafer resigned Jan. 19.
The family of the 6-year-old is seeking $2.25 million from the district. According to a letter from Cochran to the district, “the district’s lack of oversight and lack of response to a clearly dangerous situation is really appalling.”
In a prior interview, Cochran said he wants to know more about what the driver of the bus on Shafer’s route saw and whether he tried to prevent Shafer from having children sit on his lap.
The district’s former spokesman Rex said in a prior interview that Shafer passed a criminal background check when he was hired. Rex has added that Shafer had no other disciplinary actions on his employment record with the district.
During Shafer’s sentencing hearing in August, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Gary Tabor said that Shafer had admitted to “grooming” the young girls he molested over time so that he could gain their trust.
Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5465