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Investigation commissioned by Portland private school shows students were subjected to sexual misconduct, abuse from teachers

An investigative report released in mid-December outlines several accounts of sexual abuse and misconduct by teachers and staff spanning several decades at a Portland private school.

Catlin Gabel, which bills itself as an "independent progressive day school" in Portland's affluent West Hills, issued an open letter Wednesday, Dec. 11, in conjunction with the release of a report outlining key findings of a third-party investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by teachers and staff at the school dating back to the 1970s.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Catlin Gabel school students board a school bus in 2014. A report released this week outlines several complaints of sexual misconduct from teachers at Catlin Gabel, going back to the 1970s. The school's board of trustees first commissioned an independent investigation in October 2018, the school noted, after learning of reports of sexual abuse that happened years prior.

Catlin Gabel serves grades kindergarten through 12. None of the staffers named in the report currently work at the school, Catlin Gabel noted, and some mentioned by victims have since died.

One longtime sixth grade teacher, who also served as a P.E. teacher, girls soccer coach, bus driver and field trip leader, is alleged to have sexually abused a student during a sleepover at his house in the 1970s. According to the report, the girl was a high school classmate of one of Richardson, "Dick" Shoemaker's children and stayed the night at the Shoemaker home. The investigator, Lori Watson of Watson Law Workplace Investigations, noted the victim reported, "he touched her genitalia and made her touch his."

The incident was never reported to school officials, but other incidents were. Several alumni interviewed said they approached a middle school official in the 1990s about inappropriate behavior from Shoemaker. There was some follow-up, but Shoemaker shrugged it off, the report notes, and said he didn't think the students minded the affection.

When his behavior was addressed again, this time by fellow teachers following a staff training in the mid-1990s, Shoemaker reportedly became upset and walked out of a meeting.

In all, 23 students told the investigator that he had touched them inappropriately during school hours, frequently made them sit on his lap to receive help with math, and exhibited behavior that made them uncomfortable during the 1980s and '90s. In one instance, a former student reported Shoemaker kissed her on the mouth while she was alone with the teacher in his classroom. Others who said they witnessed the behavior also spoke with investigators.

Shoemaker retired from Catlin Gabel in 2001. He died in 2018.

Another teacher, Robert Ashe, had reportedly ogled female students' bodies, touched them inappropriately, made students act out sexually-charged scenes in plays, and at one point, tried to have sex with a student during a trip abroad. Ashe later resigned from Catlin Gabel in 1995 after he was sued by a former student from another school who alleged he sexually abused her during a two-year period when she was a 16-year-old attending a soccer camp he put on in the 1970s. The camp operated on the Catlin Gabel campus. Ashe died in 2000.

"It is clear that Catlin Gabel failed on multiple accounts—in protecting students and in addressing the abuse," according to an open letter from Catlin Gabel. "We profoundly apologize for the pain and suffering that these alumni endured. What happened is inexcusable. We are deeply grateful for the survivors who spoke with the investigator and recounted their experiences. ... It is because of their courage that Catlin Gabel is able to learn from the failures of the past and to establish procedures that protect current and future students."

The report's findings were initially reported by The Oregonian upon their release.

A Catlin Gabel representative said the school has "a range of programs" to prevent abuse and support victims.

"We have an anonymous tip line through SafeSchools, which can be accessed via text, phone call, email, or online. Catlin also has formed a Response Team that responds to any allegations of misconduct and abuse," Ken DuBois, director of public relations for the school, stated via email. "All employees must complete an Oregon State Police background check and fingerprinting via the Oregon Department of Education before they are hired."

The school noted it now requires clear boundaries between staff and students and now requires references from previous employers of all new staff members, outlining whether or not a prospective employee was ever the subject of misconduct allegations.

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