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Changes would close loopholes on teacher, student relationships in Portland schools, in wake of Whitehurst sexual harassment investigation

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Portland Public Schools board members Julia Brim-Edwards and Rita Moore listen during a meeting June 25. After approving changes to a contract with its teachers union, the PPS board will revisit a conduct policy aimed at preventing sexual abuse within its schools.A policy that seeks to prevent future misconduct and abuse in Portland schools came before the board again Tuesday, July 16.

In the wake of the sexual misconduct investigation into longtime Portland Public Schools teacher Mitch Whitehurst, which rocked the district in 2018, school board members are expected to adopt a new policy for professional conduct between staff and students. Board members say the new guidelines will shore up holes in protocols and policies that led to the ongoing behavior and inadvertent cover-up of complaints of sexual harassment and sexual relations with students both on and off campus by a 32-year teacher.

"We put a whole series of changes in motion that are going to protect children," said board member Rita Moore. "Child predators are not large in number, but they are huge in impact. Huge."

More than eight months after the school board first dove into a draft of the conduct policy, board members visited the issue again Tuesday, June 25, in the form of a union agreement with the Portland Association of Teachers.

The revised agreement adds new language to the section on professional educator rights and just cause, stipulating how investigations will be handled and how affected employees will be notified.

"If the allegation is related to sexual conduct or abuse, the investigation will be conducted by a subject matter expert for sexual misconduct or abuse," the agreement between the teachers union and PPS now states. "At the conclusion of the investigation, a determination will be issued and retained in the investigation file."

Record keeping is key

In addition to the union agreement, the district is expected to adopt its own policies, on recommendation from the Whitehurst investigation. That investigation was commissioned by the district after it discovered that a longtime teacher had been allowed to keep his job and work at several school sites, despite repeated complaints through the years from students and parents about inappropriate sexual behavior.

Investigators hired by the district determined that PPS either dismissed allegations, or conducted incomplete and inadequate investigations in the past. Additionally, the report found, complaints and disciplinary records on Whitehurst often were not kept centrally, or not disclosed to other schools, allowing him to move from school to school with a seemingly clean record.

"As he moved from school to school, very little institutional knowledge of his inappropriate behavior followed him," investigators stated in a report to the PPS board in May 2018. "His pattern of sexual conduct with students went mostly undetected. And when incidents were reported, the district gave Mr. Whitehurst the benefit of the doubt."

Whitehurst resigned in 2015 while he was being investigated for allegations of sexual harassment of a co-worker.

Whitehurst wasn't the only teacher who faced little discipline, despite having been the subject of multiple complaints of harassment. Norman Scott, another teacher with more than 30 years of experience, also left PPS after a substantiated report of sexual conduct, according to the investigative findings.

Because of union negotiations, Whitehurst was able to retire early with benefits. PPS investigators noted that union contracts prevented the district from disclosing salient information about both Whitehurst's and Scott's past to future employers.

"I think there were some important revisions that were added," board member Julia Brim-Edwards said during board discussions in late June about the PAT contract revisions. Brim-Edwards underscored that revisions in teacher contracts and the district's own conduct policies now have "a clear statement from the district that investigation files will be kept by the district centrally and indefinitely."

"One of the problems that we were trying to address here was a lack of clear protocols on how to follow up on concerns," said Amy Kohnstamm, who now chairs the PPS board. "What is really important to me here is that every concern about professional misconduct will now be investigated."

The policy is scheduled to come before the board for another reading before it's adopted.

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