PORTLAND — The Portland teachers union has been silent about the district’s botched handling of complaints about an educator accused of sexual misconduct repeatedly over many years.
Don’t expect that to change.
Portland Association of Teachers President Suzanne Cohen said Friday that the union will not discuss the case, which highlighted a union-backed rule that can keep principals from seeing patterns of complaints against teachers.
Veteran Portland Public Schools educator Mitch Whitehurst was at the center of an Oregonian/OregonLive investigation that found the district protected Whitehurst, not children. Despite detailed, first-hand accounts that Whitehurst ogled and abused female students, he was terminated only after a male coworker complained. His colleague’s complaints prompted Oregon’s teacher licensing agency to look into allegations from a student that the district had refused to investigate. The state agency concluded Whitehurst committed sexual misconduct and, after he acknowledged the state’s evidence of his wrongdoing, revoked his license.
The teachers union is a powerful force within Oregon’s largest school district, as it represents some 4,000 educators.
District officials who failed to investigate or downplayed complaints against Whitehurst included lawyers, principals and human resources chiefs; none was a member of the teachers union. But provisions in the teachers’ contract designed to protect workers helped shield Whitehurst and thus have come under scrutiny.
The final principal who supervised Whitehurst before he was terminated told The Oregonian/OregonLive she felt “powerless” to keep students safe from him. Complaints against him, she said, had not made it through the layers of bureaucracy, intended to protect teachers’ due process rights, that his supervisors had to negotiate before such complaints could be entered in his permanent record. LaShawn Lee, former principal of Faubion K-8 School, specifically suggested the district change a policy that she says kept her in the dark: Whenever a teacher gets a new boss, complaints and notes that haven’t been substantiated must be removed from his or her file.
A statement the union posted on its website days after The Oregonian/OregonLive began asking for comment stresses that district managers, not the union, has the power to investigate employee issues.
The statement calls on the district to conduct thorough and timely investigations. It also slams the media for “mischaracterizations” and “insinuations.”
“We will continue to defend everyone’s right to due process, and to fulfill our duty to fairly represent our members,” the statement says. “No one should have their professional reputation ruined by unsubstantiated rumors or be tried in the press where they are assumed guilty until proven innocent. We continue to demand that the district do its job of investigating complaints and taking appropriate actions, while adhering to core legal principles like due process and innocent until proven guilty.”
The statement said the union has advocated that the district fix its “dysfunctional approach” to personnel complaints and investigations for years.
The pushback from the union comes as contract negotiations drag on and the threat of a strike looms. Although negotiations are still underway, the policy prohibiting retention of unsubstantiated complaints is not up for debate. The school board voted on and approved the portion of the contract that preserves that provision in March.
Nevertheless, an outside investigative team the school board hired to hunt for lapses in the district’s treatment of Whitehurst will look at that contract. The long list of questions the board tasked investigators with answering includes: “Are there provisions in the union contract that impact the district’s ability to adequately address complaints?”