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Thursday, September 27, 2007

FOI At Work: School District In Denial

The Tacoma News-Tribune tells a critical story, thanks to records showing that school apparatchiks knew more than they said they knew:

Tacoma Schools officials could have fired teacher Jennifer Leigh Rice last fall when they learned about her history of socializing with students, two attorneys say.

And officials knew of issues in Rice’s past earlier than they’ve previously acknowledged, personnel records appear to show.

Rice, 31, is in Pierce County jail, charged with the August kidnap and rape of a 10-year-old boy who was in her fourth-grade class at McKinley Elementary School during the 2006-07 school year. Prosecutors charge that sexual abuse began as early as December and continued into the summer.

She also faces charges of raping a second boy, who was not one of her students, during July and August.

Rice told police she had sexual intercourse with the 10-year-old several times, including once in his bedroom on Aug. 2, according to court documents. She pleaded not guilty to all 13 counts, which include rape, kidnapping and child molestation.

The case raises questions about when Tacoma Schools officials learned of concerns raised when Rice taught at Spanaway Lake High School during the 1998-99 school year, and once they knew, whether they could and should have let her go.

District spokeswoman Leanna Albrecht responded to a list of questions from The News Tribune by directing a reporter to human resources policies posted on the district’s Web site.

“Many of your other questions deal with issues that would be addressed in what we anticipate to be litigation; therefore, we are not in a position to respond to those based upon the advice of counsel,” she wrote in a statement e-mailed to the newspaper. Among the questions she did not answer was whether any legal claims have been filed against the district in the case.

After Rice’s arrest last month, Albrecht told The News Tribune that the decision to hire Rice was made before district officials had a clear view of her past.

Her comments seem to suggest there wasn’t much the district could have done.

But records show that then-Tacoma human resources director Bonnie McGuire knew within days of Rice’s Oct. 9 hire that Rice once worked for the Bethel School District, where she was investigated for inappropriate and unprofessional relationships with students.

McGuire was an assistant principal at Spanaway Lake High School when Rice came under investigation in the fall of 1998 and the winter of 1999. Allegations included that Rice drove students around, made verbal advances to a male student and attended a student party that included drinking and marijuana use.

McGuire admonished Rice then that “it was not OK for a teacher to be hanging out with students on a social basis,” records of the investigation show.

“I told her that it is not appropriate for a teacher to have students in her car, and that she could not continue this practice,” McGuire wrote in a statement for the investigatory record.

McGuire was not the only administrator to talk to Rice about her behavior, and Rice was placed on administrative leave for three weeks during the investigation. She was brought back as a substitute teacher to complete the year. She resigned that June.

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