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Federal judge will review lawsuit files in case against Willmar special ed teacher

WILLMAR -- A federal magistrate judge has ordered the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota Board of Teaching to submit investigative reports to be reviewed by the judge in private.

The investigative reports deal with a federal lawsuit filed against the Willmar School District, several administrators and a special education teacher. The suit alleges that the teacher, Lisa M. Van Der Heiden, mistreated a special education student and that the administrators knew about the situation and did nothing. Magistrate Judge Jeanne J. Graham issued the order after a hearing in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.

According to Graham's order, the reports will not be publicly disclosed while she is reviewing them. Because the information in the reports will remain private, at least for now, the agencies are not required to notify any of the people mentioned in the reports.

The state agencies could not turn over the documents unless the court ordered them to do it. The state Government Data Practices Act allows certain kinds of information to be released only by court order.

The lawyers have until Aug. 13 to submit briefs to Graham on other issues raised in the hearing. After her internal review, she will decide what parts of the reports are to be made available to attorneys and made public.

The defendants have filed a motion to dismiss the suit, which was argued in June before Judge David S. Doty. He has not ruled on the motion yet.

The information-gathering portion of the lawsuit continues while Doty's decision is pending. The plaintiffs filed a motion compelling disclosure of the reports of several state and school district investigations into complaints filed against Van Der Heiden. Reports of the investigations had been provided, but large portions of the reports were crossed out.

Van Der Heiden, through her attorney, had responded that the motion was premature, because Doty has not ruled yet.

In a motion filed by their attorney, the other defendants asked the court to order the release of the investigation reports for review. They also asked that information that is released not contain any educational records.

Van Der Heiden made several requests in her response. She said that files from two investigations where no student maltreatment was found were not relevant to the case and did not involve the child who is the plaintiff.

She asked that information from those files not be released. If the court decides to release some of the information, she said in the motion, she may challenge that decision.

Van Der Heiden sought a court order that the Department of Education reveal the identities of people who filed the allegations of maltreatment. The names of reporters are usually kept confidential.

"On information and belief, it seems that the reporter may be one disgruntled employee or a small group of employees and that information is necessary to our defense in this matter," attorney Laura Tubbs Booth wrote in the motion. "Minnesota law allows the release of the reporters name when the reports are false and made in bad faith. This may be such a case."

Van Der Heiden also asked that information that is released be given only to the plaintiff's attorney, Margaret O'Sullivan Kane.

Limiting public access to the information would limit "further burden and embarrassment for Defendant Van Der Heiden," Booth wrote. "Such an order would also protect other employees or students in this same town from being unnecessarily subject to embarrassment or rumor. It is a matter of public record that this case has received significant media coverage in Willmar, Minnesota and release only to the parties' attorneys would eliminate any further negative coverage for the Defendant."