PPS teacher: Rewarding misbehavior?
On the Internet, Sam Leach looked like a model teacher.
There's the 2013 OregonLive story on how the then-third-grade teacher's blog was deepening conversations on school activities among North Portland families.
There's his LinkedIn profile, which sketches a long and successful career with regular promotions as an educator who "effectively managed student behavior."
There are his Facebook and Twitter profiles with teacher pictures: a smiling Leach in front of a blackboard, a group of children with hands raised.
But a report recently released by the state Teacher Standards and Practices Commission paints a vastly different picture of Leach's history as a teacher.
Written reports from colleagues at James John Elementary School allege that in 2012 and 2013, he verbally, physically and emotionally abused children as young as 5.
The report also raises troubling questions about how long it takes to reprimand a public school teacher for misbehavior witnessed and properly reported by many of his colleagues. For reports dating back nearly five years, Leach has only just, on April 6, received a four-month suspension of his license and two years of probation from the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission.
At the district-level, a mere 10 months after Portland Public Schools disciplined Leach with a three-day suspension for yelling at and shoving kindergarteners around, they gave him a job as a school-wide student management specialist. He was put in charge of managing student behavior at Kelly Elementary School and Lent K-8 School until mid-February of this year, when he voluntarily took a leave of absence.
Jeff Crockett, who was a student teacher in Leach's classroom in 2012-13, said he's glad that the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission took decisive action. But, he said, it should never have got to this point.
"It shouldn't require TSPC to deal with it. It should have been something that was dealt with in the building. I know in the building that I work in, it wouldn't be tolerated at all," said Crockett, who is now a teacher in Vancouver. "I would hope that there's enough notoriety around this stuff that the district realizes that it's our responsibility to protect kids and not protect adults."
Troubling behavior with kids
An investigation by TSPC found Leach violated several professional standards, such as using unreasonable physical force against students, weak management of students and not recognizing the worth and dignity of all persons.
Colleagues at James John reported a litany of troubling behavior by Leach.
The most dramatic incident, witnessed by many in the school cafeteria, involved Leach allegedly slamming a kindergartner to the ground for cutting into the lunch line.
In addition, the reports allege he:
• Yelled at students
• Made racist comments
• Shoved and grabbed students out of frustration
• Left students unsupervised
• Shamed students
After the cafeteria incident, according to public documents, Leach took personal leave and then was on paid administrative leave over winter break in 2013. He was on paid time off for a total of about five weeks before PPS issued its decision to impose a final warning and three-day suspension in January 2014.
When he returned to work Jan. 9, 2014, Leach was on a plan of assistance.
He was required to attend a two-day training, but said he only attended the first day, as he was sick. Leach claimed to TSPC that the principal did not regularly visit his classroom as the plan called for.
The next school year, Leach started as a second-grade teacher before taking a job in October 2014 as Kelly Elementary School's student management specialist. The state report says no further complaints of his behavior have been documented.
This was not a teacher who fell through the cracks. A Portland Association of Teachers union rep led a collection of eyewitness statements of Leach's questionable practices from eight co-workers. Several of those people and others also say they made reports to PPS administrators, the Oregon Department of Human Services, the Portland Police Bureau and the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission.
Although documented incidents started in 2012, Leach is only now facing a serious reprimand.
Leach did not respond to messages asking for comment for this story.
He told TSPC investigators he took the three-day suspension PPS handed down as a wake-up call and committed himself to learning student behavior support — to be that resource he didn't have as a teacher.
"This experience has become one of the main drivers of my work," Leach wrote in a statement to the licensing commission. "If people are static and unchanging, what is the point of education?"
Crockett, who was a student teacher with Leach in the 2012-13 school year, thinks the district got conned.
"He's incredibly manipulative of his public image," Crockett said. "The foundational things to support students really weren't getting done and he was spending the bulk of his time promoting himself."
Gets pay raises
Although the district says Leach's new job as a student behavior coach was not a promotion, records show Leach's salary continued to rise significantly each year. From 2012 to 2018, his annual pay grew 21 percent, to $82,889.
PPS did not respond to questions about how the district handled complaints about Leach before the state got involved.
"We take issues of student safety and teacher conduct very seriously, and the district is reviewing the implications of the suspension," district spokesman Harry Esteve said.
Leach voluntarily took a leave of absence from his job at Lent K-8 School starting in February. According to the most recent pay stubs obtained by the Tribune, he is still being paid out of accrued leave time.
Crockett, who also parents a PPS student, said he is still troubled by what he witnessed and the district's response.
Beginning in 2012-13 school year, Crockett made multiple reports of Leach's behavior with students, including one of two 2015 letters that kicked off the formal state investigation.
"I am quite confused and troubled by the district's decision to place a failing teacher on administrative leave and then turn around and promote him," he wrote to the state teacher licensing agency. "Perhaps you will be able to find answers where I have been thwarted."
Leach was a third-grade teacher the year Crockett reported to superiors that Leach would berate children, shove them, make them cry and make racist comments. In one instance in April 2013 — documented by Crockett and another PPS teacher, Jane Harold — Leach grew frustrated with a third-grader who was passing out snacks from a five-pound bag of fruit. Leach, according to the reports, yanked the bag out of the student's hands, threw it into the hallway hard enough to slam into the opposite wall and then yelled at him to clean it up.
Reassigned to kindergarten
The next year, now-retired Principal Beth Shelby made Leach a kindergarten teacher at James John Elementary School, per his request.
"His behavior really became public in the whole building, as he was unable to manage his classroom," Crockett said. "There were numerous incidents of being physical with the kindergarteners."
Surveys that Shelby conducted of teachers and students showed there were many who reported Leach grabbing, shaking, pushing or otherwise using physical force with students.
In addition, six staff members at the low-income and majority non-white school said they had heard Leach make racist comments.
Shannon Baker, a teacher still at James John, wrote to TSPC that as the incidents mounted and it appeared the principal was unwilling to intervene, she and Dan Kropp, the union rep, went to then-PPS administrator Sascha Perrins twice with their concerns. But nothing happened, she said.
The incident that finally moved PPS to action appeared to be a Nov. 12, 2013 dispute with a kindergartner who cut into the lunch line. Witnesses say Leach picked the boy up by both arms, walked him to the end of the line and angrily "slammed the student to the ground."
Leach admitted to TSPC that he struggled to manage kindergarteners during the first 10 weeks of the 2013-14 school year.
The TSPC investigator, B. F. Krauger, reported that during his 2016 interview, Leach seemed to be minimizing his actions and impact on children.
Leach told the state investigator he did not recall many of the incidents his colleagues described or that he recalled them being less intense or violent. He suggested that his colleagues were upset because he worked overtime and was innovative with technology without expecting added compensation.
Crockett said he thinks both Leach and the district need to take more responsibility for the harm to students.
"Saying it was a wake-up call and he just changed, it seems ridiculous," Crockett said. "If an adult is being abusive to students, then something needs to be addressed immediately. To not do anything and to promote him seems like a massive failure on the district's part."
Five organizations passed buck on Leach's behavior
At least five organizations charged with preventing harm to children were told of teacher Sam Leach's behavior, and it appears none of them imposed a meaningful consequence until the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission's April 6 final order, years after red flags first surfaced.
The answer appears to be lost to the halls of bureaucracy.
The Portland Association of Teachers union did not respond to questions on this case. A building union representative, Dan Kropp, collected statements to send to administrators documenting Leach's alleged conduct. However, aside from a union lawyer representing Leach, their involvement appears to end there.
Portland Public Schools administrators did very little, according to teachers' letters to the TSPC. After a five-week paid leave of absence, Leach returned in 2014 to a three-day unpaid suspension, a warning that he could be fired, and a plan of assistance that wasn't fully implemented.
According to records, mandatory child abuse reporters did their duty and made multiple reports to the Department of Human Services Child Welfare division.
However, DHS says that they do not investigate allegations of child abuse outside of the home.
"Department of Human Services, Child Welfare program does not investigate public school teachers when reports of abuse or neglect are received in a school setting with students as the alleged victims," said DHS spokeswoman Christine Stone. "Law enforcement conducts these investigations."
The TSPC report says that DHS cross-reported the complaints of abuse to the Portland Police Bureau, but the bureau was not able to find any records of child abuse investigations of Leach. Asked twice to verify if the cross-reports were sent, DHS referred to the TSPC report as verification.
Police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson said such cross-reports are typically made via email or FAX.
"I would have no way to verify if DHS sent that particular report to PPB," Simpson said. "There are no technical problems that existed in 2013 that would be of note for this; however, if the report was never made to police and only to DHS, there would be no PPB case number to even research."
Simpson said cross-reports are typically made to the police bureau's Child Abuse Team or the Youth Services Division. In 2017, the Child Abuse Team received 16,000 cross-reports of suspected abuse. That's an average of 1,230 reports a year for each one of the 13 law enforcement staff in that team.
Finally, teachers said they also sent complaints of Leach to the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission prior to its 2015 investigation. But Oregon law that spells out the complaint process says the commission may require that the teacher's district investigate first. Leach's 2012-13 student teacher Jeff Crockett sent a letter in January 2015, which was soon after Leach began his job as a student management specialist. Kropp sent his letter a couple months later. TSPC did not interview Leach until Sept. 7, 2016. It concluded the investigation Dec. 21, 2016.
The commission made its final decision to suspend Leach's license for four months on April 6 — four-and-a-half years after Crockett says Leach told him that, in his experience, "if you want to control 'these' kids you have to make a boy cry in the first week."