Allegations of misconduct that current and former students brought against staff at Portland schools last summer have resulted in resignations and verbal warnings.

Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana: “We owe a debt of gratitude to the students and former students who raised these issues.”  File photo by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The district also has issued a report detailing how it will improve its process for responding to students’ complaints and the underlying issues that were raised.

The report and disciplinary actions are the result of a recently completed investigation into allegations that roughly 60 current and former students made against current and former staff. The allegations, most of which were anonymous, were collected on social media by a 2017 Deering High School graduate.

The complaints related to a range of issues, including allegations of staff having inappropriate interactions with female students, sexist jokes, a lack of sensitivity around race and gender issues, concerns about a “white-centric” curriculum and a lack of responsiveness from the administration.

Brought to light in June 2020, the allegations came amid a national reckoning on racial justice and as school districts, universities, government agencies and businesses around the country saw similar calls to address systemic inequities. In response, the district said it would investigate, and encouraged students with concerns to come forward. Superintendent Xavier Botana also asked the district’s legal counsel, Drummond Woodsum, to conduct an independent assessment and investigation into the social media posts, which totaled more than 100 pages.

“As a district, we owe a debt of gratitude to the students and former students who raised these issues,” Botana said in the district’s 15-page report, which he compiled with the assistance of Drummond Woodsum and human resources staff. “While anonymous social media allegations are not the ideal manner to bring these issues to the district’s attention, it is how they chose to speak their truths. I am hopeful that this report will serve as some degree of closure for them.”

A copy of the report was shared with school district staff Tuesday and Botana discussed it at a school board meeting Tuesday night. Botana could not be reached for an interview after a reporter obtained a copy of the report Wednesday afternoon.

Botana told the board that the investigation’s key findings include that the district does not have a safe reporting system for students and that as an institution, the district has a “spotty record” of following through on claims that are brought forward. “Those two lessons are interdependent,” he said. “The extent to which the lived experience of reporters is that there is a lack of clear follow-up leads to a lack of trust in the system. It also leads to a culture where claims get legs in the public lore and are never brought to closure.”

The investigation started when Angeliha Bou, a 2017 Deering graduate, collected the posts from other current and former students after she made a Facebook post about diversity in Portland schools and stories came flooding in from others. Bou then provided the posts, with names redacted, to the district.

In an interview Wednesday, Bou said she is still reading through the report, which she received last week, but she is grateful to the superintendent and school district for conducting the investigation.

“As of right now I’m still processing it,” she said. “Of course, I will never be completely satisfied until all students feel they are safe in their communities, but it’s a work in progress and I do thank everyone involved for allowing this to happen.”

The anonymous nature of the posts made the investigation difficult, and few students were willing to come forward with their names, the report said. Of the staff named in the posts, 39 were current employees and 19 were no longer employed by the district.

“While these limitations are noted, they do not minimize the need for action to address the concerns identified,” the report says. “Although mostly anonymous, the allegations warranted careful investigation, which we have done. The posts provide very important information about the lived experiences and perceptions of school held by the individual students – and doubtless many other students have similar experiences and perceptions.”

Drummond Woodsum staff, working with district human resources, reviewed and assessed the posts and divided the identified staff into two groups. One group constituted staff for whom, based on the claims and any corroborating information, there could be grounds for disciplinary action.

While anonymous reports alone are not enough to warrant disciplinary action, they did serve as the basis for further discussion and investigation. In the end, a total of 17 administrators, teachers and coaches were interviewed in the first category, resulting in two staff resignations and verbal warnings for two other staff members.

The superintendent also met with other individuals to discuss the allegations, and opportunities for coaching and training. The names of staff involved are not included in the report.

A second category of staff was not investigated because the claims against them were not deemed to rise to the level of possible disciplinary action. In that category, a staff member who was not investigated resigned and a former staff member was blocked from seeking further work in the district. The superintendent also met with staff in that category to discuss the allegations, and opportunities for coaching and training.

“Overall, I am proud of our Portland Public Schools staff,” Botana said at Tuesday’s board meeting. “Very few of these claims resulted in disciplinary action. However, they were the subject of thoughtful, reflective conversations with many of the staff involved.”

The report also details some of the steps the district has taken to respond to the allegations, including the passage in October of a new harassment and discrimination policy that spells out reporting procedures, ongoing work to review disciplinary policies and curriculum, and the development of an equity policy.

It also makes suggestions for other actions the district could take such as hiring an external ombudsmen to serve as a check on the system, staff training and school-level restorative dialogues.

Among her questions, Bou is wondering whether there will be ways for students to report their experiences through avenues not affiliated with the school district in the future and whether there is a way for students to preserve their anonymity while at the same time having their allegations taken seriously.

“A lot of the students and alum I’ve talked to, they wanted to stay anonymous to prevent any backlash or repercussions,” she said.

Some students fear if they speak out about a negative experience with a staff member, that staff member could find out and the student, or even their younger siblings, could experience backlash, Bou said.

“I know how in the report it talked about how much disciplinary action couldn’t be made because these were anonymous stories told by students and alum that wanted to keep their identity sealed, so I would still like to know, even if (future reporting) were anonymous, would their stories and perspectives and concerns still have weight?” she said. “So I definitely plan to talk to Superintendent Botana or the district more about that.”

In a statement included in the report, the school board said the allegations were disappointing, and it reaffirmed a commitment to creating a climate of respect, inclusion and equity. The board also thanked the superintendent for conducting the investigation and the students who came forward for speaking out and said they support the further actions outlined in the report.

“We are grateful that many of the staff identified in the allegations demonstrated humility and were able to reflect on the stories being shared back to them,” the statement said. “We all need to do this work reflecting, interrupting harmful behaviors and acting anew. We all play a role in either making our schools places that affirm our students’ many identities or places that harm our students’ right to be free of biased abuse and violence. A daily, low hum of violence in the form of inappropriate comments and actions is not acceptable.”

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