Portland schools struggle to find way to handle complaints
Natalie Hval is trying to decide whether or not to give up the supports her son receives for his disability so that he can take a coveted spot in ACCESS Academy.
Hval recently filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging that her son with special needs was denied access to the gifted school because of his disability. She now says the district has found a spot for him at the school, but that they won't be able to accommodate his additional support needs.
So Hval has to decide: Give up his special support and hope it all works out, or insist on his disability accommodations and miss the opportunity she's been fighting for?
Hval says she has been fighting for her son's needs for years but the complaint process at Portland Public Schools is murky and daunting.
"I think the complaint process is pretty intimidating for everybody," Hval says. "It's hard to get clear information about who you should talk to and what the steps are."
Conflict resolution, PPS-style
TODAY: Complainants who go all the way to the top still feel frustrated
NEXT WEEK: Absent a good complaint process, many say they have been given or threatened with trespass notices
Complaints come from all quarters
In any agency as large as PPS, there are bound to be problems. In any endeavor as important as the formation and safety of children, people are bound to be emotional or have strong opinions.
But PPS critics say the district has a poor and unevenly executed approach for how it addresses problems and complaints.
It's been a long-standing problem for the state's largest district.
Since 1990, Portland Public Schools has been named in at least 35 court complaints over alleged civil rights violations.
During the same period, the slightly smaller neighboring district of Beaverton has defended against about nine federal civil rights cases, and the state's second-largest district, Salem-Keizer, has had about 10.
PPS officials say they are aware of the criticisms of their complaint process and are working on improving it by developing clearer policies, designating a complaint coordinator and deploying a single, universal complaint form.
It's not just parents who say the district has a problem resolving complaints. Teachers, administrators and even a school board member say they have felt enormous pressure to ignore problems rather than resolve them.
Some complainants have been banned from school district property, discouraged from talking to elected representatives, or simply ignored for what they say is advocating for children.
Those with complaints offer mountains of documentation — file folders, PDFs, email chains, etc. — and seem desperate for someone to listen to them.
Administrators at the district often provided brief or off-the-record comments to parents and reporters, if they agreed to talk at all.
Board member's complaint stuck in limbo
Portland Public Schools is facing 17 open investigations from complaints filed with the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education.
The Beaverton School District has none. The Salem-Keizer School District has six.
The federal agency won't divulge much more than the number of investigations. A spokesman asked that his name not be used in this story and declined to answer questions, referring a reporter to the agency's website, where there are general descriptions of the civil rights complaint process.
Citing privacy concerns, the spokesman would not confirm basic details that even the complainants themselves are happy to have in the public realm.
Portland Public Schools board member Paul Anthony made headlines last summer when he announced that he was filing a federal discrimination complaint against his own district. He compiled spreadsheets that showed disparate course offerings between schools with different racial make-ups. He filed the federal complaint last May after feeling brushed off by then-Superintendent Carole Smith.
The move overjoyed some and puzzled others.
What isn't clear is what — if anything — has come of it, almost a year later.
The Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education is likely investigating Anthony's claim, but it may not be. The office would not confirm anything. The PPS legal office would not release letters sent to its office from the U.S. Department of Education, saying the letters were not theirs to hand over.
"And, even if (the district) is considered a custodian of a copy of the record, the record is exempt from disclosure under the federal law that governs (Office of Civil Rights) investigations while the OCR process is pending," says General Counsel Stephanie Harper.
Anthony says the latest he has heard is that the Office of Civil Rights is investigating, but that Harper is not allowing him to talk to them.
"Stephanie Harper is taking the position that since I am a board member and any admissions that I make are admissions by a district as a whole and would leave the district legally liable," Anthony says.
Harper confirms that she sees her responsibility to represent PPS and the Board of Education as a whole, therefore she represents Anthony in this matter. "... The attorneys who work for the federal Office of Civil Rights cannot consider Director Anthony to be a private citizen where this complaint is concerned," she argues.
It is unclear how she can represent someone who doesn't want her representation.
"I need to talk with my own counsel and figure out how we can proceed," Anthony says.
He also worries that the new Trump administration is not interested in following up on civil rights complaints.
"I think the thing is just liable to get shelved permanently," Anthony says.
The representative from the U.S. Department of Education declined to directly address Anthony's accusations.
Parents feel retaliation
A PPS parent, who wants to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation at work, also has an investigation underway through the Office of Civil Rights, after going through what she says were three tiers of the district's complaint process without resolution.
"I just got bounced around a lot," the mother said. "I went through so many people in the administration and nobody can answer my questions."
She says her daughter was denied entrance to the Woodstock School's Mandarin immersion program — which is close to where she lives in Southeast Portland — and instead placed at the King School Mandarin program in Northeast Portland. She worries this is because her family is not white and, at the time, they were low-income. After she complained about the placement and also about four injuries her daughter received at school, she says the district didn't respond.
Instead, they reported her to Child Protective Services.
"I don't feel like it was right for them to call CPS," she said. "I just felt like they put us through a lot for (trying to get answers to) a couple questions."
Hval, the mother of the special needs student who wants to go to ACCESS Academy, has similar feelings.
She says the district's ombudsman, a new position created in 2015 to hear complaints, was a waste of time and that the district didn't provide clear information on how to submit a formal complaint, despite that being a requirement of state administrative rules.
The complaint process is listed on the district's website. However, the role of the ombudsman in resolving complaints is unclear.
"It's almost like the Wild West or something," Hval says. "There's law and due process and when it actually comes to doing it, it doesn't happen."
Hval doesn't hold out much hope for the federal process to effect change either.
"I don't think OCR is going to force them to do anything," she says.
Next: How the district says it will update its two-year-old complaint process