Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita
CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. - The public should hear the tapes. That's what the district attorney said Friday regarding those recorded phone conversations between three Cheektowaga teachers and one of their students, who was awaiting trial on murder charges.
But the attorneys for the teachers say the law is on the side of their clients.
"Parents have a right to know what is taking place in the school and in the classroom," Cheektowaga Police Chief David Zack said during a press conference Thursday, during which he intended to release the audio of the recordings until attorneys for the teachers stopped that from happening by threatening to file a lawsuit.
Chief Zack said he's disgusted by the actions of three teachers from Cheektowaga Central High School. He said that, while one of their students, Dontre Jones, was in jail awaiting trial on charges of murdering a man in Cheektowaga Town Park, Jones called the teachers during the school day. Inmate calls out of the holding center are always recorded.
Chief Zack said, after listening to the tapes, he concluded the teachers interfered with the police investigation. However, both Chief Zack and Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita said the teachers committed no crime.
So far, attorneys for the teachers have stopped police from making the recordings public, at least for now.
REPORTER: Do you think the public ought to hear what's on these tapes?
SEDITA: Yes. I do . . . When we turn over our kids to teachers for five or six or seven hours a day, they're acting in loco parentis. They are acting in substitution of the parent. And I would like to think that most teachers, the vast, vast majority of teachers, are instilling in our children the same values that we seem to agree on as a society are good, which is honesty, decency, cooperation with the authorities when there has been a serious wrong.
Police have not revealed what was actually said on the tapes or the names of the teachers, who have been put on paid leave by the school district. The Chief Zack wants them fired.
Carl Morgan, who is the attorney for one of the teachers, says the chief's behavior is totally out of bounds.
MORGAN: The information he obtained is supposed to be sealed. When you do a criminal investigation of an individual and that criminal investigation determines there was no criminal conduct, you can't use that information to impugn their character or to seek some sort of punishment for them within the context of their employment or otherwise. That's specifically sanctioned by law. And he's just run amok with this.
REPORTER: These three individuals, including your client, are teachers. They're in a position of public trust. Doesn't the public have a right to know what was said in those conversations?
MORGAN: Not necessarily, no. It depends on what the nature and the extent of the conversations were. You have people who are charged with the responsibility of making that determination. Those people have legal authority to take action if they think it's appropriate. It's not the chief of police of the town of Cheektowaga.
Complicating matters is the fact that two members of the school board that will decide the fate of the teachers are Cheektowaga police officers. That means Chief Zack is their boss. Zack told reporters he has not said anything to the officers about what they should do, adding that, if we heard the tapes, the decision would be obvious.
As for the recordings, the attorneys for the town of Cheektowaga are trying to determine whether the town would be liable. We should know sooner rather than later. Meantime, 2 On Your Side has filed a freedom of information request for the material.