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Ohio teachers' union, district clash over release of names of teachers who crossed picket line

Strongsvillestrike.jpg

Public schools teachers in Strongsville, Ohio, went on strike for two months last year. (AP)

An Ohio teachers union is suing the school district in a Cleveland suburb for the names, addresses and phone numbers of hundreds of teachers who crossed the picket line during an acrimonious strike last year.

During the eight-week-long strike in the Cleveland suburb of Strongsville more than a year ago, district officials brought in 372 substitute teachers to keep the classrooms open. When the subs crossed the picket line, there were the usual angry words and accusations. But when the strike ended, Cleveland Teachers Union Local 279, which represented the striking teachers, filed a Freedom of Information request for the names and addresses of all the substitute teachers.

The district refused, citing safety concerns for the substitute teachers, but a court ruled in favor of the union. Now the case will be heard by the Buckeye State's Supreme Court, and some advocates of the open records law say the court must make the district comply.

"The picketers even yelled obscenities at a candidate who walked into the building with her two young children."

- Legal brief filed by school district

"Courts must set a high bar of evidentiary proof before undermining the Ohio open records law," Dennis Hetzel, executive director of Ohio Coalition for Open Government, told FoxNews.com.

Despite the school district's claims that turning over the names could put the substitute teachers at risk of harassment or even harm, Hetzel said a decision to make such public information private could have a dangerous ripple effect on other cases of government transparency. He acknowledged that there are circumstances where keeping identities confidential is warranted, but he does not see it in this case.

"The Ohio Supreme Court has upheld privacy restrictions on access to names and addresses in past cases but only involving people in positions such as undercover police officers or law enforcement officials who face clear, direct threats," Hetzel told FoxNews.com. "[But] expanding this protection to non-union teachers facing obviously concerning but generally nebulous threats during a labor dispute opens up a Pandora’s box of problems.

"In effect, anyone who claims they feel or perceive a threat could dictate that open records be closed, and governmental bodies could be exposed to liability for even releasing those records," he said. "Taxpayers and parents certainly have an interest in knowing the identities of teachers who are hired."

Union President David Quolke did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment. It remains unclear why the union is requesting all the names, addresses and phone numbers of the substitute teachers.

District officials say the union used intimidation on the teachers during the strike, and giving the names of those who crossed the picket line could invite more of the same.

"The names of the replacement teachers were not and still are not public record, given the numerous instances of threats of physical and non-physical harm made by persons in support of the striking teachers against the District’s replacement teachers," Christian Williams, an attorney representing the district, wrote in an e-mail to FoxNews.com.

According to a merit brief filed with the Ohio Supreme Court on behalf of the district, the picketing outside Strongsville's council chambers the day the district began hiring substitute teachers left applicants "physically shaken."

In the brief, which was obtained by FoxNews.com, the district claims that on March 3, 2013, substitute teacher applicants were followed by picketers as they walked into the building. The district said a group of 75 to 100 protesters were "yelling and screaming" at them until they entered their vehicles. 

"The picketers even yelled obscenities at a candidate who walked into the building with her two young children," the brief reads. Some of the applicants were forced to exit the building through a rear exit and with a police escort, according to district officials. 

The brief described the behavior of the picketers as "acts of harassment and intimidation" that raised "safety concerns."

The district cites a March 7, 2013, incident in which Chris Koval, a SEA member and regular teacher employed by the school board, was arrested by the Strongsville Police Department for driving his vehicle in a "reckless manner" when he allegedly cut off a van transporting substitute teachers to work. The substitute teachers reported that Koval nearly caused a collision with their van. Six days later, another substitute teacher reported that she was driving home after working at one of the district's buildings when "a car pulled up next to her, yelled 'scab," and threw an object at her windshield, breaking the glass." 

The brief goes on to cite several instances in which substitute teachers were allegedly harassed, taunted and publicly shamed for working for the district. It also cites cases in which temporary teachers had their vehicles vandalized allegedly by protesters. 

"The temporary replacement teachers have a constitutional right to safety and security," the district asserted. "Disclosing their names would violate that right by exposing them to the risk of serious physical and non-physical harm, the scope of which it is not possible to know." 

But there is a good reason for teachers' names to be made public, said Columbus-based attorney Fred Gittes, who represents the Ohio Coalition for Open Government.

"The public, especially parents, have a right and need to know who is going to be responsible for their kids for much of their day," Gittes said. "Because they are substitute teachers, you can't go to the state department of education and get information about them -- like checking to see if they're properly licensed or have a criminal background."

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