Arguments Swirl Around School Sex Investigation
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Police officers investigating reports that a teacher had sex with a 17- year-old student interrupted a school staff meeting, thumbing through hundreds of files and even examining trash.
The search Oct. 3 at school district headquarters, and another one three days later at Bartlett High School, prompted the Anchorage School District to sue the police and touched off a furor over privacy rights, police use of search warrants and the responsibility of school officials to deal with allegations of misconduct among staff members.
Heightening interest in the dispute is the fact that onetime English and journalism teacher Gordon ″Satch″ Carlson, who resigned in August after school officials confronted him with the allegations of misconduct, was also a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News.
The 44-year-old Carlson, who won a national Ernest Hemingway parody contest in 1988, quit writing the column, which commented humorously on local politics and other topics, in late August. The newspaper didn’t say why he left.
Carlson has said only that he committed no crime and that ″some of the personalities involved are in hot pursuit simply because of who I am.″
″There have been no charges filed, and I don’t know if charges will be filed,″ said Jeff Feldman, an attorney for Carlson.
″I’m not aware that there have been any allegations made that constitute violations of Alaska law.″
The dispute surrounding Carlson did not become public until Oct. 3, when police, led by Chief Kevin O’Leary, interrupted a meeting at school district headquarters and searched through files and garbage for evidence of sexual misconduct. With another warrant, officers entered Bartlett High School on Oct. 6 to look for samples of semen and hair in a music room.
School administrators say the wide-ranging search violated the privacy of personnel, students and parents, and went beyond what was authorized by the court. An angry Superintendent William Coats said officers could have gotten the information they wanted simply by asking.
The girl at the center of the investigation - court transcripts made public this week suggest a second may have been involved - was older than 16, the age of consent in Alaska. But a separate state law cited in the search warrants bans sexual contact between adults in a position of trust and children under the age of 18. The law, however, doesn’t specify whether teaching is such a position of trust.
For the public, questions about Carlson’s activities appear to have been outdistanced by questions of school district and police ethics.
School officials acknowledge that they first heard of the allegations last May, when a student claimed that another student had an affair with Carlson. Both he and the girl denied it, school officials say, and the matter was not pursued until the girl’s family repeated the allegation this summer and Carlson was confronted and resigned.
School district spokesman Michael Malone said appropriate reports were filed through the state youth services agency. The agency contacted police after learning of the allegations from the school district in September.
But prosecutors suggest school officials were slow to report the allegations, and should not have tried to deal with them internally instead of going to the police early on.
The school’s former principal and the acting principal, in affidavits this week, denied that they were pressured by school officials not to report the allegations. They said a police investigators mispresented their statements during a hearing for search warrants.
In a letter to the editor of both local newspapers, Oren Bell argued that the school district ″is a well-oiled machine when it comes to protecting its employees even to the detriment of our students. I have no doubt whatsoever that the (police department) could not have gotten the evidence it sought by asking for it.″
Another school district critic, Charley Schneider, said in a letter that the district was ″wasting our money″ suing the police, adding, ″This appears to me to be an attempt to discredit what may come to light.″
But to Jim C. Walton, the school raid suggests a pathway for ″such action on any of our homes or businesses.″
″If we do not protest this, we are essentially allowing the development of a police state,″ he said in a letter to the Anchorage Daily News.
The schools’ suit assailing the actions of prosecutors and police may be just the the first legal maneuver in the Carlson case.
″We are opposed to the search and we are exploring every legal option,″ said Jamie Bollenbach, executive director of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union.
The Alaska office of the National Education Association, which once counted Carlson among its members, is prepared to join the ACLU in legal action, President Don Oberg said.
Meanwhile, the district attorney’s office and the police are saying little.
Assistant District Attorney Stephen Branchflower on Tuesday declined to comment on the case. Deputy Police Chief Dwayne Udland would say only that police stand by their actions.
″Of course we believe we did the right thing,″ Udland said.