Superintendent to Lent K-8 School: 'You deserve better'
It was an emotional morning at Lent K-8 School in outer Southeast Portland on Wednesday as a room full of teachers, parents and administrators came together to discuss a long history of trouble at the school.
The bilingual meeting was organized in the wake of reports that Sam Leach, a school climate coach at Lent, had his teaching license suspended for four months April 6 for alleged abuse of students at James John School in 2012 and 2013.
See previous story: portlandtribune.com/pt/9-news/395725-287415-pps-teacher-rewarding-misbehavior
"The nicest thing Sam Leach ever said to me was that he wishes this school was good enough for his kids to go to," said Katherine Rodela, who helped organize the meeting. "So, it wasn't a nice thing at all. And it punched me in the stomach because he was trying to be nice."
To many parents, the troubles at the low-income school have been long-standing and varied. One parent described frustrations dating back to 2008.
Paula Hernandez said through an interpreter that Leach was just "the drop that broke the water glass." She said that other teachers at Lent exhibit similar behavior. (Leach is accused of lashing out in anger at students as young as 5, either through shoving them, yelling at them or shaming them.)
"Una problema de muchas," Hernandez said — one problem of many at the school.
Carolyn Myers, a Lent parent, was at the meeting, too. Myers has filed a $700,000 lawsuit in state court arguing that Portland Public Schools was negligent in moving Leach to her school and that her son was assaulted at least five times in the 2016-17 school year by Leach. (See sidebar, below.)
"It is not easy for a parent to make a complaint about someone in authority, or a colleague to make a complaint about their coworker, or a child to come forward that an adult who is said to be a 'safe' person is hurting them," Myers said. She added, as did many, that Latino parents have been organizing to correct the school's problems for years with no results. "From the smallest person to the brownest person to the person who does not speak English, everyone's voice should carry the same weight. Especially when it comes to the safety of our future leaders. I demand it. We demand it."
Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero told the parents he had heard them and their concerns.
"You deserve better," Guerrero told them. "What you're sharing here today, as a superintendent of schools, as a parent, is very upsetting. It's very disturbing."
Guerrero promised to bring more attention and resources to Lent, including instructional and administrative coaches.
He said after the basics of instructional climate issues and school facilities issues are addressed, student instruction needs serious attention too. The district considers 84.3 percent of the school's 530 students to be "underserved" either through racial, language, income, or special education factors.
School board member Mike Rosen, who represents the area, and board co-Vice Chair Julie Esparza Brown also attended the meeting.
"It was very moving to hear the issues from our families," Esparza Brown said. "It's very unfortunate that we are where we are, but we're not going to stay here, and I will commit to that."
The parents asked that by the end of the school year, June 8, Guerrero, Franklin cluster Senior Director Jennifer Patterson and Lent Principal René Canler respond to 10 categories of their recommendations for improvements in both the short and long term. These included an investigation of Leach's treatment of Lent students as well as investigations of other parent complaints of abuse.
Patterson, who served as an interim principal at the school for a few weeks during some of the tumult in leadership in recent years, vowed to respond to any complaints.
"What is true is as soon as we have information, we act on it and we prioritize student safety," she said.
Principal Canler asked for patience as administrators worked to address the problems.
"Even though it has taken many years for our school to get to where it is, it going to take years for our school to get back to where it should be," Canler said. "And I say that very transparently and I say that with the urgency, as well as knowing that it has to be thoughtful and it can't be reactionary. Because if there's one thing I have seen that causes more damage, is when we react without being thoughtful."
Ana Muñoz, a school-based programs manager with the Latino Network, said the turmoil at the school also tainted that nonprofit's efforts to engage the parents and provide after-school programs. "Please bring the support that this schools needs and please include the community partners so we can be part of that effort and get parents and students the support that they need," Muñoz said.
Parent Lindsay Commodore said through tears that her son had regular contact with Leach for behavior issues and mental health needs. Commodore said that after the meetings with Leach had gone on for a while, her son started acting "very strangely." At one point, Commodore said, the 6-year-old ran out in the street wanting to kill himself because he was a "bad kid."
"No cuts. No bruises. But the scars are real," she said. "The system is broken."
Guerrero essentially agreed that the system needed work. "Many of the things that you're describing are symptoms of organizational shifts that we would make.
"I just want to assure you that it is a new day in PPS," he added, noting that he has hired all new members of the executive leadership team since he started Oct. 1.
Parent Daniel Garcia was one of many who shed tears at the meeting. Garcia said he struggled for most of a school year to get his daughter special education services and she now comes home depressed. The second-grader "didn't want to be alive anymore because all the students were making fun of her for not being able to read," Garcia said. "I came in and thought I could advocate for my daughter but I can't when this system is so broken."
After the meeting ended, Garcia said he would wait to see action before deciding if this time is different than what has happened after previous parent demands.
"Talk is cheap," he said. "The district leaders, the teacher's union, will they work together to solve this problem or will they point fingers at each other?"
Mother files $700,000 lawsuit alleging Sam Leach assaulted elementary student
Carolyn Myers, a parent in the Southeast Portland Lent School community, filed a lawsuit May 22 on behalf of her son in Multnomah County Circuit Court against Portland Public Schools and teacher Sam Leach for what she describes as neglect and assault.
Myers is asking the court for $15,000 in economic damages and $685,000 for possibly permanent psychological damages, for a total of $700,000.
The mother made a statement at the Wednesday morning parent meeting but declined further comment.
"PPS schools and Lent are supposed to be a safe place for all children," Myers said. "For some children, this may be the only safe place they have to go."
In the complaint drafted by Portland personal injury attorney Kevin Brague, Myers claims her son was assaulted "at least five times" by Leach in the 2016-17 school year. As a result, she claims, her son has suffered through bruising and pain, excessive crying, anger, fear of teachers and of using the bathroom and other negative effects.
During the agency's 2016 investigation of assault claims by fellow teachers at James John School, Leach told the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission that the discipline he received from the district — a three-day suspension in 2014 — was a wake-up call and he had not put hands on any student since then.
The TSPC investigation concluded that Leach did abuse or mistreat his students while at James John Elementary School.
"…the overwhelming volume of allegations from both students and educators against Mr. Leach paint a disturbing picture of grossly inappropriate and unprofessional behavior for any educator," TSPC executive director concluded.
Shasta Kearns Moore
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