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Portland Public Schools will go to a jury in racial discrimination case Monday
A jury trial is set to begin Monday in a racial discrimination case brought against Portland Public Schools by two maintenance workers who still work for the district.
The case, filed last year in Multnomah County Circuit Court by PPS employees Jason Williams and Charles Morgan, alleges PPS allowed a hostile work environment to fester in the district's facilities department. Williams and Morgan, both African-American men, say in court papers that they were subjected to a pattern of persistent racial discrimination and that PPS's human resources department did little to nothing to address it.
If the trial moves forward, a jury will determine how much money in damages, if any, PPS ought to pay Williams and Morgan.
It is unusual for PPS to have to defend itself in front of a jury — and the suit comes at an awkward time. The last high-profile jury case against PPS came in 2011, when a special education administrator, Stacey Sibley, brought a whistleblower suit against PPS. A Multnomah County jury sided with the district.
And the trial, expected to take two weeks, will showcase unflattering testimony from facilities workers just as PPS asks voters to approve a $790 million construction bond on the May 16 ballot. Former chief operating officer Tony Magliano, who resigned amid the tumult of last year's lead scandal, is also expected to testify.
The original 19-page legal complaint, filed in March 2016, details a host of discriminatory actions allegedly taken by Williams' and Morgan's co-workers and supervisors. Comments included frequent use of the N-word and such statements as "what kind of rope do you want me to hang you with?" A PPS supervisor also allegedly told Morgan, "affirmative action had done a disservice to African Americans."
After Williams and Morgan complained to the human resources department, they were allegedly subjected to heightened scrutiny. A March 4, 2015, report on a PPS investigation into the allegations concluded Morgan had "experienced racial micro aggressions: which include brief and regularly occurring verbal, behavioral, or environmental dignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicates hostile, derogatory, or negative racist slights and insults towards people of color."
However, PPS's human resources department found that those actions did not constitution racial discrimination.
In June 2015, PPS told Williams it had found no evidence that PPS had retaliated or discriminated against him.
A spokesman for the district, Dave Northfield, declined to comment on the pending case. Attorneys for the PPS facilities workers, Diane Sykes and Ashlee Albies, also declined to comment.
The original complaint also named the workers' union, the United Association Local Union 290 representing plumbers and steamfitters. The local union settled with the workers in March.