Report details Portland Public's failure to investigate years of sexual misconduct claims
A new report delivered to the Portland Public Schools board detailed how the district failed to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct by teacher and coach Mitch Whitehurst during a 30-year career in the district.
A combination of failures — including bad recordkeeping and a failure to centralize and define roles for responding to sexual misconduct allegations — led the district to minimize and ignore conduct that eventually led the state Teacher Standards and Practices Commission to suspend Whitehurst's teaching license.
The Whitehurst case was investigated and highlighted by an August 2017 series by The Oregonian. The story, Benefit of the Doubt, featuring allegations from several former students has earned its author Bethany Barnes numerous awards, including the 2018 Brechner Freedom of Information Award.
The district report's authors said in addition to those detailed in The Oregonian, they also found other serious complaints against Whitehurst in their investigation, but none led PPS to properly investigate.
"The current and former PPS employees involved in the investigation have pointed fingers at each other to explain why Mr. Whitehurst was not disciplined or terminated for the conduct," the report's executive summary reads.
The audit includes several recommendations to avoid future cases from being buried for years:
- Improve training for PPS employees, volunteers and students
- Develop policies and directives
- Implement a centralized tracking system of complaints
- Discontinue the practice of separation agreements that include gag orders that prevent disclosure of misconduct
- Work with the union to revise parts of the teacher contract that make it difficult to address complaints
- Work with the Portland Police Bureau
- Lobby the Oregon legislature for better protections for students
- Lobby to shorten the timelines of investigations by TSPC
The board and superintendent vowed take action to review and implement the report's recommendations.
"As a parent, I know that parents expect that the safety of their children will be at the center of our work," said PPS school board Chair Julia Brim-Edwards in a statement released by the district. "I appreciate the thoroughness of the investigation team's report, and thank the girls and young women who voiced their concerns or spoke up over the years about misconduct. Their voices and the failures spotlighted in this report are a call to action to school district leadership. We must commit to taking action and making fundamental changes so that we can prevent this from ever happening again."
"We appreciate the exhaustive work completed by the investigation team; it helps the District understand what occurred and what work is needed to protect students," said PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero in a statement. "I am committed to working closely with the Board to consider the recommendations as thoroughly and as quickly as we can."
The report, which is available for download on the PPS website, includes close to 100 interviews and a review of thousands of documents with answers to 20 questions from the board such as: "Is there any indication that District personnel used transfers as a way to avoid taking disciplinary action?" and "Are there provisions in the union contract that impact the District's ability to adequately address complaints?"
The months-long review was conducted by Bob Weaver and Joy Ellis, principals at the law firm Garvey Schubert Barer, and Norm Frink, retired chief deputy district attorney for Multnomah County.
The report notes that Whitehurst has consistently denied any sexual misconduct.
UPDATE (5/10/18): The Oregonian story was resummarized to include other complainants.