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Originally published October 22, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 22, 2006 at 7:57 AM

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Inside the Times | Mike Fancher

Winding trail led to ugly facts a school district tried to hide

A thread attached to the proverbial needle in a haystack. That's how I think of today's installment of "Your Courts, Their Secrets," the...

Seattle Times editor-at-large

A thread attached to the proverbial needle in a haystack.

That's how I think of today's installment of "Your Courts, Their Secrets," the groundbreaking Seattle Times investigation of inappropriate secrecy in Washington courts. The ongoing effort continues to reveal incredible stories that otherwise would never have come to light.

The trail leading to today's account began when reporter Ken Armstrong was examining one lawsuit among hundreds that had been sealed entirely and improperly. The sealing order made a passing reference to unnamed parties in a confidential settlement involving the Northshore School District.

Armstrong followed that thread and discovered the settlement involved sweeping secrecy, but he diligently pieced together the details of how a teacher was seemingly enabled to fondle female students repeatedly over many years, despite complaints about his behavior.

The teacher, Carl Leede, had been arrested in May 2000 for possible child molestation. He subsequently pleaded guilty to six counts of misdemeanor assault and no contest to one count of communicating with a minor for immoral purposes and was sentenced to eight months in jail.

At one hearing, a prosecutor mentioned that Leede's inappropriate touching had been brought up with school officials by parents and other teachers for a decade or more.

Today's article by Armstrong and Justin Mayo reveals the rest of the story. The facts are chilling, but equally disturbing is the cloak of legal secrecy that surrounded the case. A confidentiality agreement not only prevented the public from knowing the settlement amount of $700,000 but required that documents be destroyed, computer records purged and court records sealed.

Armstrong concludes that the Northshore School District "went out of its way to keep secret the allegations against it. ... They settled and slapped a secrecy agreement on the settlement that was as broad as anything I've ever seen."

The reporter filed public-records requests to get access to personnel files of Leede and several principals for whom he worked, as well as files involved in prosecuting the teacher. Even after he persisted in piecing the facts together, school officials refused to be interviewed.

"We're lucky we ever saw this," Armstrong said. "It's unbelievable that a public-school district would forget that it is public. That's not how we envision our public institutions working."

This story, like several others in the "Your Courts" series, involves legal actions that keep the public from knowing what government is doing. Other stories have dealt with issues such as medical and legal malpractice, workplace safety and the protection of vulnerable people.

"There are all kinds of reasons why lawsuits and court records should be open. The public benefits from it," Armstrong said. Open justice is what the Washington Constitution demands, and since the 1980s the state Supreme Court has required that court records be sealed rarely, and only with compelling reason.


All of our reporting in this continuing investigation can be found online at . So far, motions filed by The Times have resulted in 34 lawsuits in King County being unsealed. "But the unsealing has extended well beyond that," Armstrong said.

"Some judges in King County have unsealed cases on their own after the newspaper pointed out deficiencies in their sealing orders. One lawyer has also taken it upon himself to go to court and ask judges to open cases that he had asked to have sealed in the past. So far he's opened 17.

"In Snohomish County, judges conducted a review of their court records and were alarmed to discover more than 1,000 cases sealed in their entirety, including civil, divorce and probate matters. These judges and court commissioners have already gone back and unsealed dozens of cases and will be opening many more. They are reviewing 20 new ones every two weeks."

Changes have also occurred in federal court. In July, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington tightened its rules for sealed records, saying lawyers can no longer file pleadings under seal without first getting court approval.

Also, a new rule passed by the Washington Supreme Court took effect in July. It tightened and clarified the rules that judges must follow when considering a request to seal records. It said, among other things, that the parties' wish for secrecy does not by itself justify sealing records; and a judge should try to redact, or black out, sensitive portions of a document rather than sealing the whole record.

"Just as important as these developments," Armstrong said, "we have been unable to find a single civil suit in King County Superior Court that has been sealed in its entirety since our series began in March. Before, the judges and court commissioners sealed a couple dozen or so each year."

The Times continues to seek to open records already under seal, so watch for future stories.

If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to More columns at

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