An elite Portland prep school racked by a misconduct scandal has fired another employee accused of sexually abusing a student.
It's the latest in a long line of troubles for Catlin Gabel School since decades of allegations surfaced in early 2020. The storied private institution now faces abuse claims from 27 people seeking a combined $80,850,000 in damages, lawyers say.
"The plaintiffs are bringing these lawsuits because Catlin Gabel needs to change its whole culture as it relates to identifying and responding to warning signs and complaints of sexual abuse," said Megan Johnson, one of the lawyers working on the suits.
Catlin Gabel School says it placed middle school librarian Lynn Silbernagel on leave, told her not to contact students, and banned her from campus on Sept. 1, 2020 — the same day the Oregon Department of Human Services informed administrators of a just-filed report of sexual contact between the educator and a student some 24 years earlier.
Silbernagel lost her job entirely on Sept. 4 of last year, school leaders say.
Middle-grade families and employees were informed of the departure, but Catlin Gabel didn't detail the reason why until this August, nearly a year later, when a $3 million lawsuit alleging child battery and negligence was filed against the academy in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
"We had received no other reports of alleged misconduct by this employee in the more than two decades since this incident allegedly took place," Head of School Tim Bazemore wrote in a letter. "I am cognizant of balancing employee privacy requirements with the needs of parents and guardians for transparency; in every instance, the safety of students is my top priority."
Silbernagel and her husband, who still works at the K-12 school in a non-teaching role, didn't respond to multiple requests for comment. The student she allegedly abused isn't identified in the lawsuit, which is typical for this type of litigation.
The student — a "lifer" who entered Catlin Gabel as a kindergartener in 1989 and graduated in 2002 — was groomed by Silbernagel starting when he enrolled in eighth grade in the 1997 school year, the suit alleges.
It was Silbernagel's second year on the job, the suit says, and initially she acted like a friend and mentor, encouraging the boy to confide in her. She invited him to read while sitting beside her desk, and, on one occasion, allegedly had the minor put his hand on her leg or vice versa, leaving the boy feeling "very uncomfortable," the suit claims.
"She began grooming him to condition him to comply with her directions and to be more receptive to her later sexual advances," according to the suit.
At some point, Silbernagel drove the student home, then fondled him and performed oral sex on the couch in the living room while his family wasn't home, the suit says. On a second occurrence, Silbernagel drove the student to the Nike store in Northeast Portland, bought him a shirt he wanted, then repeated the sexual abuse in his bedroom while the rest of his family was gone, the suit alleges.
"He told her to leave and said something to the effect of that he felt 'dirty' and needed to take a shower," according to the litigation, brought by attorney Ashley Vaughn.
A spokesman for the Washington County Sheriff's Office says Silbernagel was investigated as part of a wider investigation into campus culture, but the local district attorney determined the statute of limitations had expired and closed the case.
State officials say they have no record of Silbernagel having ever held licensure through the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, and therefore she is not under investigation.
In March, Johnson, a former Washington County prosecutor, filed another suit echoing the numerous claims of sexual misconduct against former sixth-grade teacher Richardson "Dick" Shoemaker; this particular case alleges the educator groped a student 11 times in the 1995 school year.
Shoemaker was treated like a venerable figure at the school, the suit says, even though his misconduct was an open secret and students even presented him with a "dirty old man award" in 1981 or 1982. Shoemaker died a few years ago, as did another accused teacher, Robert Ashe.
Other educators named in the cascade of lawsuits include former fifth grade teacher Mark Peterson, former theater teacher Stephen Richmond, and former choir teacher Roy Stubbs — all of whom have denied the allegations spanning from the 1970s to 1990s. Former Catlin Gabel coach Deonte Huff was convicted of sexually abusing a student in 2019.
"It's a school that has a decades-long pattern of employing and harboring and maintaining sexual predators as educators of children," said Johnson. "Sexual abuse at the hands of a trusted adult or teacher, specifically someone who's supposed to protect you, is uniquely traumatizing."
Catlin Gabel says it has developed a range of resources, curricula and policies to prevent harassment and discrimination at the learning center. The Catlin Gabel Therapy Fund offers a maximum of $10,000 for the treatment costs of those harmed.
"Our highest priority at Catlin Gabel School is the safety and well-being of our students and school community members," said spokesman Ken DuBois. "Catlin Gabel does not tolerate misconduct of any kind."
Follow me on Twitter
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.