Investigators hired by the Portland Public Schools board released a damning 320-page report last week detailing how the district repeatedly failed to address allegations of serious sexual misconduct against Mitch Whitehurst, a former Portland Public Schools teacher who retired in 2015 after 32 years with the school system.
Whitehurst’s misdeeds – and the district’s complacency in dealing with them – eventually came to light through an in-depth series of articles published by The Oregonian in 2017. Shortly thereafter, the school board brought in a team of independent investigators to provide a full accounting of the facts in the case and develop recommendations to address problems surfaced during the course of their investigation. The report issued last week is a detailed summary of what those investigators uncovered over the past nine months.
They found that questions about Whitehurst’s conduct were raised almost immediately after he was first hired by the district in 1982 and continued over the next three decades, as several students and parents complained to school administrators about his inappropriate behavior (which, it turns out, included having sex with several students).
Yet time and again, the district did nothing. Each time allegations were raised, officials either dismissed the accusations as rumor or chalked up the incidents as a one-time lapse in judgment. It was only after Whitehurst touched a fellow faculty member at school – and Portland Police got involved – did anyone take action against him.
After officials at the state licensing agency caught wind of the police investigation, they launched an investigation of their own. As his history of sexual misconduct came to light, Whitehurst voluntarily surrendered his teachers license, but not before the Portland Association of Teachers negotiated a generous early retirement package for him, which included an agreement that the district would not disclose the reasons for his departure.
But the Portland Association of Teachers’ culpability in the Whitehurst scandal doesn’t end there. The investigators found that the union’s policies allowed Whitehurst to prey on students for so long. One such policy, enshrined in the union’s collective bargaining agreement, requires the district to purge disciplinary records from the personnel files of teachers every three years. This made it nearly impossible for school officials to establish that Whitehurst had a history of serial sexual misconduct with students.
During his career with Portland Public Schools, Whitehurst transferred schools a half-dozen times. “As he moved from school to school, very little institutional knowledge of his inappropriate behavior followed him,” the report notes, pointing to the frequent purging of records. “His pattern of sexual conduct with students went mostly undetected. And when incidents were reported, the District gave Mr. Whitehurst the benefit of the doubt.”
Investigators also found that the union’s aggressive tactics have created an atmosphere in which school administrators are reluctant to take disciplinary action against teachers like Whitehurst.
“Some administrators expressed a fear of retaliation by the union and its members,” the investigators stated in their report. “Other administrators voiced fatigue from trying to manage an educator using the formal disciplinary process only historically to have HR, in-house legal counsel, or the Board push back on the reprimand and contend the offending behavior should not result in discipline or termination.”
To add insult to injury, Portland Association of Teachers officials refused to cooperate with the school board’s investigation and PAT president Suzanne Cohen has told reporters at The Oregonian, who broke the Whitehurst story, that she will never give an interview on the subject.
Nevertheless, the release of the Whitehurst investigation report has resulted in calls for the school board to revisit many of the policies in their contract with the teachers union. For its part, the Portland Association of Teachers publicly made a vague pledge to work with the district to protect students from sexual abuse moving forward. However, PAT president Suzanne Cohen has downplayed the significance of the report and signaled to members that the union is not planning on making substantial changes to the contract.
“The problem in PPS isn’t the PAT contract, and the problem isn’t the quality of the PAT members,” Cohen wrote in a letter to members last Friday. “The problem is that PPS has allowed a culture of irresponsibility and dysfunction to flourish among its administrative ranks. The constant acceptance by PPS of administrators who cannot follow the simplest contractual requirements related to evaluation, discipline, safety, and a myriad of other issues reinforces what we have been claiming for years and has harmed students and educators.”
In short, the Portland Association of Teachers refuses to accept any responsibility for creating an environment in which its members have been able to engage in sexual misconduct with students. It’s also clear that they believe that protecting teachers should take precedence over protecting children from sexual abuse.
Unless parents and community members demand that substantive steps are taken to revise the contract, the Portland Association of Teachers will continue pay lip service to student safety, while protecting the worst of the worst.