String Of Scandals Rock Portland Public Schools
Sex abuse, lawyers practicing without a law license, intentionally underestimating maintenance costs to pass tax hike ballot measures, superintendents resigning and getting fired, dismal graduation rates…
Welcome to what has become of Portland Public Schools. And it didn’t even take an undercover James O’Keefe sting to reveal all of this.
Let’s start with the most shocking revelation; PPS covered up a 32 year habitual sex abuse scandal involving a teacher, who allegedly routinely sexually harassed teenagers over the course of his career. School officials looked the other way and were afraid of getting on the bad side of the teachers’ union. They even referenced a policy that restricted what PPS officials could tell other potential employers who were looking at hiring the guy.
Portland Public Schools fielded report after report that educator Mitch Whitehurst engaged in sexual misconduct with students, starting the very first year of his 32-year career, a damning investigation released Thursday says.
In fall 2017, the Portland school board hired a team of investigators, hand-picked for their expertise, to examine how district employees treated Whitehurst. The board did so in response to an August 2017 Oregonian/OregonLive investigation, “Benefit of the Doubt: How Portland Public Schools helped an educator evade allegations of sexual misconduct.”
The investigative team interviewed more than 100 people and had access to thousands more records than The Oregonian did. It found evidence school administrators and school police knew Whitehurst was a problem from almost the very beginning. Yet he went on to work at more than a half dozen schools.
Investigators also found additional student victims not previously known to the public, called out specific officials by name for their inadequate actions, and determined that the district and law enforcement should have stopped Whitehurst’s abuse earlier.
District practices and priorities to this day lead to chronic underreporting of sexual misconduct, investigators found. Children suffer from a school district culture where employees look for reasons not to act and stick to the bare minimum of what they feel is required of them, investigators found.
In his very first year at Portland Public Schools, 1982-83, Whitehurst breached boundaries with students so noticeably that a vice principal reported his conduct to school police. The next year, a mother at the second Portland high school where he worked complained Whitehurst had engaged in sexual activity with students, and the vice principal there also reported his conduct to school police. In the late 1990s, school police were again called to investigate a student complaint about him, this time at Marshall High. By the time Marshall student Rose Soto told police and a vice principal in 2001 that Whitehurst said he wanted to unzip her pants and take her to a hotel, it was the fourth time the district heard a credible complaint that he violated student boundaries — and did nothing.
Investigators also fault the district’s top lawyer of many years, Jollee Patterson, for key lapses that let Whitehurst slide. Unlike many others, she knew of multiple credible reports of sexual misconduct yet failed to act or ensure others did.
Thursday’s report noted that time and again employees focused on reasons they could not act to stop Whitehurst instead of seeking ways to act. Investigators found district employees were quick to point fingers at others and explain that they didn’t feel it was their job to act.
The investigators found principals and other administrators generally avoided disciplining teachers and other union members in the absence of clear-cut evidence of wrongdoing because of concerns the teacher’s union would make it too drawn out and difficult. That reluctance was particularly acute when it came to alleged sexual misconduct, they found. The standard, they wrote, became to avoid documentation and other key practices that experts deem essential best practices to protect children from abuse.
Portland Public Schools never punished Whitehurst for his conduct with students. Whitehurst only resigned under pressure in 2015 after a male district employee complained Whitehurst had offensively touched him. Whitehurst was charged with harassment and pleaded guilty.
Even the way Whitehurst left the district was problematic and could have led to more children being harmed, investigators found. Whitehurst struck a deal, not uncommon in the district, that restricted what the district could tell other employers.
Before the teacher licensing agency revoked his license, Whitehurst planned to teach elsewhere.
The practice of agreeing to keep quiet about former employees’ questionable conduct, investigators found, enabled at least one other teacher, Norm Scott, to go on to another job and harm students. The former Grant High teacher was convicted in October of sexually touching six Oregon City middle schoolers in a single day while substitute teaching.
Read the full report HERE.
This is hardly the only scandal the PPS has dealt with in recent times. Just last month the school district settled a $1.4 Million lawsuit due to racial harassment and threats that some employees were experiencing.
During that lawsuit case, it was discovered that the school district’s top lawyer, Jim Harris, didn’t actually have a state bar number and was not legally licensed to practice law in Oregon:
Portland Public Schools‘ top lawyer isn’t licensed to practice law in Oregon despite being on staff since June. Now he is quitting the job that requires him to hold that credential.
Jim Harris resigned after less than six months on the job, Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero announced Monday.
The Oregon State Bar informed Harris on Nov. 9 that it is investigating whether he illegally practiced law by serving as the school district’s general counsel without being admitted to practice in Oregon.
District spokesman Dave Northfield was adamant Tuesday that Harris’ exit had nothing to do with his lack of a proper license. He told The Oregonian/OregonLive Harris expects to be admitted to the Oregon bar later this month.
School board chair Julia Brim-Edwards only learned about Harris’ lack of credential recently. She asked this month that Harris not sit with the board or advise them during meetings until he became an Oregon Bar member.
“The lack of licensing was a surprise and now that I am aware of it, it wouldn’t be appropriate to continue to have the board advised at a public meeting by an individual who is not currently licensed to practice in Oregon,” Brim-Edwards wrote to the district’s director of human resources. “This request is not based on any particular issue with the individual in the (general counsel) role, rather it is a matter of professional best practice.”
Earlier this month, Guerrero fired his second-in-command, Deputy Chief Operating Officer Yousef Awwad. According to a spokesman, Guerrero took that step “to begin building a new leadership team that complements his leadership style.”
The district is also in the midst of recruiting a new deputy superintendent of instruction and new chief academic officer.
The reason for Harris’ departure is unknown. Guerrero said Harris will continue to work for Portland schools for a couple weeks to help Large transition into the role. Guerrero wrote in his email that Harris “intends to pursue a career opportunity closer to his home on the East Coast.”
In a story for the Portland Tribune, one legal expert elaborates on this problem:
An expert in professional conduct for lawyers says the fact that Portland Public Schools’ new general counsel, Jim Harris, lacks a license to practice in Oregon is a problem that likely violates state ethics rules.
“It’s pretty simple,” Lucian Pera, a nationally recognized expert on legal ethics, tells the Portland Tribune. “You’ve got to be recognized by a jurisdiction somehow before you can act as a lawyer.”
While unlicensed, Harris appeared in Multnomah County Circuit Court alongside outside lawyers for PPS as the district’s general counsel, and PPS’s website has listed him in that position as well.
Pera, the national expert based in Tennessee, said the Oregon Bar would likely question whether Harris was practicing “temporarily.” He moved here, had an office with Portland Public Schools, sat at the table for lawyers representing PPS in Multnomah County Circuit Court this summer and offered legal advice to members of the school board.
“A number of jurisdictions would not consider that temporary,” said Pera.
Guadalupe Guerrero is the current Superintendent of PPS, having been on the job since October of 2017. We’ll see how long he lasts. Barely a month into his job, he fired deputy superintendent Yousef Awwad after it was discovered that Awwad was lying to the school board about the health safety of two new schools.
One of Guerrero’s first big hires was his friend Luis Valentino, who had previously been fired by the Albuquerque school district after only two months on the job as superintendent, in the wake of several scandals that he was involved with. Valentino was given a $100,000 payout after he hired a deputy superintendent who was up on FOUR felony charges related to child sex abuse, as well as plotting to oust the district’s chief financial officer.
The previous full time Superintendent of Portland Public Schools, Carole Smith, resigned following the discovery of mass lead and radon contamination at several schools that the district had known about for six years. In fact, it took over a year and a half for officials to correct the problem. The lead in the drinking water was discovered in May of 2016, and when the 2017 school year started, students were still not allowed to use the water fountains. They had a year and a half, which included two summer vacations, to fix the issue. And they couldn’t do it.
After Smith’s resignation, interim Superintendent Bob McKean was set to hire an attorney for the school district who had previously plead no contest to violating public records laws. McKean went on to oversee new pay raises for himself and 30 other admins, upwards of $18,000 each, on top of a $166,000 salary, while they laid off 70 teachers.
The aforementioned Yousef Awwad took over for McKean as interim Superintendent after McKean quit in July of 2017. Awwad was also caught in a controversy alleging that he had a sexual relationship with a subordinate. This was the second time Awwad served as interim Superintendent.
After Awwad went on medical leave, assistant Superintendent Antonio Lopez took over as interim interim Superintendent in the fall of 2017.
On top of all this, voters have approved multiple tax hiking bond measures for the school district, with the most recent one already over $89 Million over the approved $750 Million bonds. And some say that district officials knew that it would go over budget as they were putting it on the ballots.
Oh yeah, they also paid a teacher $139,000 to NOT teach for 2 years because he kept getting arrested for a myriad of different charges, including domestic abuse, violating restraining orders, driving drunk, and more. They even paid him an additional $19,000 as part of a severance package.
This is all so Oregon can have the 3rd worst graduation rates in the country.
And these people are the ones trusted with educating children. I can think of a better role in public service these people can serve, and it involves bright orange attire.