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Bryan Chu, Harriet Tubman teacher placed on leave, says he faced blowback for speaking out against racism and failures of PPS

UPDATED: 11:43 a.m., May 28

A Portland middle school teacher at the center of a personnel investigation is pursuing legal action against Portland Public Schools.

An attorney for Bryan Chu, a social studies teacher at Harriet Tubman Middle School, sent a tort claim notice to PPS on Chu's behalf on May 9, alleging retaliation, hostile work environment, and a racist work culture that led to him being temporarily ousted for being a whistleblower.

A tort claim notice is required whenever a public body faces a potential lawsuit.

The claim, sent by Portland-based Albies & Stark law firm, highlights the school district's past failures to treat its employees of color fairly. It also alleges an atmosphere of discrimination and the stifling of non-white voices of opposition, despite PPS's own equity policies and state mandates to hire more teachers of color in Oregon schools.

"Mr. Chu, an Asian man of Chinese descent, is currently a social studies teacher at Harriet Tubman Middle School ("HTMS") and has been a PPS teacher for 14 years. Despite the above goals of the Racial Educational Equity Policy, PPS has subjected him to numerous incidents of discriminatory treatment over the years, including retaliation for his opposition to PPS's racially discriminatory treatment of employees and students of color," the claim states. "Mr. Chu has been an outspoken critic of PPS's violations of its own policies, including making comments to the media."

Chu was placed on administrative leave April 1 as the district launched an investigation into his behavior during district meetings, as well as his repeated critique of the district's public engagement process regarding the relocation of Harriet Tubman Middle School. On May 4, the investigation was expanded to include allegations of workplace harassment, communication with students, grading practices, and his continued public complaints of alleged unlawful conduct by PPS.

Some of the events that triggered the district's action against Chu stemmed from two public meetings where he lobbed blunt criticism at PPS employees and school board members. At a facilities meeting in March, Chu publicly told a member of the district's community engagement team that she failed at her job.

Three weeks before that on Feb. 22, he was one of several teachers at a school board meeting who responded in frustration to statements made by PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero about improved health and safety measures and air filters in classrooms.

Two weeks before he was placed on leave in April, Chu found out the vice principal at his school was asking students about comments he made at school. Chu emailed to inquire about what seemed to be a secret investigation and emailed the vice principal a copy of the district's retaliation policy.

Shortly afterward, he was ousted from his classroom and has not returned to work since then.

J. Ashlee Albies, an attorney with Albies & Stark, says the district's actions are evidence of retaliation against him for being an outspoken critic and a whistleblower.

"Frustratingly and ironically, PPS targets Mr. Chu for being an outspoken proponent for equity based on his constitutionally protected speech and whistleblowing activity, while simultaneously promoting itself as being on the cutting edge of educational equity work," the tort claim states. "These two positions are fundamentally incompatible, especially as PPS acknowledges it has work to do to dismantle '[c]omplex and deeply entrenched racist systems.'"

Albies claims the investigator looking at Chu's behavior has investigated similar claims of racial discrimination for PPS and found none, despite one of those incidents leading to a lawsuit in 2017 that found the district at fault for a hostile work environment and racially motivated retaliation. PPS was ordered to pay $1 million in that case.

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Students protest at the Portland Public Schools central office on May 13, after a walkout from Harriet Tubman Middle School over the continued absence of their teacher, Bryan Chu. Chu has been on administrative leave since April 1 and now plans to sue the school district.Since Chu was placed on leave, teachers and students have lambasted PPS with repeated student walkouts and public testimony at school board meetings.

During a student walkout from Tubman Middle School to the PPS central office on May 13 to protest Chu's absence, students said Chu "has always been a thorn in PPS's side," noting he's been vocal about opposition to district policies and actions he disagreed with.

Chu's attorneys say his criticisms and comments at meetings are protected speech. The notice also claims the teacher has been subjected to "numerous incidents of discriminatory treatment over the years."

According to the tort claim, Chu was investigated before, after he spoke out against PPS changing teachers' work schedules without their input, which led to some being assigned an additional elective class without additional pay. Chu's lawyers also said he advocated for a colleague at Tubman Middle School facing discrimination. The incidents amounted to PPS retaliating against Chu for his advocacy, the legal claim asserts.

Around the same timeframe, he had complained to PPS after his job responsibilities shifted from teaching a core subject to electives that were likely to be cut from the curriculum. After he complained about the shift in job responsibilities as an apparent tactic to push him out, he was shifted back to teaching social studies.

PPS declined to comment on how it will respond to the pending litigation, but the district refuted the claims made about its work environment.

"As is consistent with our practices and commitments, we treat personnel matters with confidentiality," Freddie Mack, communications director for PPS, said in a statement on behalf of the district. "We feel strongly about and embrace our commitment to providing an inclusive and welcoming place to work and learn, and we do not tolerate discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or any other protected status. At PPS, we welcome diverse points of view; and the diversity of our staff, students and families is our strength and the very fabric that holds us together."

This story has been updated to include comments from Portland Public Schools.

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