SMMUSD HDQTRS — A Los Angeles Superior Court Judge last week granted a temporary restraining order prohibiting the school district from releasing to parents personnel records of a Santa Monica High School teacher accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a female student.
Michael Chwe, a parent with two children in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, filed a California Public Records Act request in December with the superintendent’s office in an attempt to learn more about an investigation involving Ari Marken, who teaches math at Samohi.
That was after more than 140 people signed a letter expressing disapproval of the district’s handling of the case and asking for more information about the incident.
The school district was in the process of responding to Chwe’s request when Marken filed a motion to block the release of the records. Judge Ruth Kwan granted the restraining order and set a hearing for March 10, at which time she will consider issuing a permanent injunction, attorneys for Marken said.
“I think students have the right to go to school in a safe environment and parents have the right to know about hazards in schools so they can best prepare children for these hazards,” Chwe told the Daily Press. “There’s no way of knowing unless the district tells us something. We just want information.”
According to a letter dated Dec. 4, 2008 from then-Assistant Superintendent Mike Matthews, Marken was put on leave that school year after an investigator hired by the district determined he had violated SMMUSD’s sexual harassment policy.
The teacher was again placed on leave the following school year after a complaint surfaced that he had engaged in inappropriate communications with students over Facebook, according to people knowledgeable about the case. He has returned to Samohi as a classroom teacher this school year.
Chwe wants to know whether Marken is restricted form having one-on-one meetings with students or engaging in electronic communications with them, and what disciplinary actions have been taken against him. He would also like to know to what degree the harassment policy was violated.
The district’s sexual harassment policy includes everything from making inappropriate jokes or drawings to teasing and touching someone’s clothes in a sexual way, as well as making unwanted sexual advances.
Superintendent Tim Cuneo has refused to comment further on the investigation, saying the district cannot legally disclose details about the case.
Attorneys for Marken, who received high marks on ratemyteachers.com, said releasing personnel records could have a “chilling effect” on public employees who may decide not to cooperate in internal investigations out of fear their actions may be released to the public or fellow colleagues.
Others said releasing personnel files could also create friction between employees within a school district or other public agency.
“There is a reason why personnel records are kept confidential,” said Daniel Kolodziej, an attorney for Marken. “In order to administer a school district and for teachers to teach, it is necessary for personnel matters to be kept confidential. There is a bigger picture here than the particular wants and needs of a couple of parents.”
Marken said if Chwe’s request is granted by the school district it would “open up the floodgates” for every public employee in California.
The school district is waiting for the court to make a final ruling before moving forward with Marken’s request.
“If the district wants parents to trust in their ability to keep kids safe, they have to answer some questions,” Chwe said.
Kolodziej said he believes the judge will rule in favor of Marken.
“In our opinion, the legal standard for disclosure of confidential documents is not met in this case,” he said.