Harriet Tubman Middle School teacher Bryan Chu has been placed on paid administrative leave by Portland Public Schools, and school administrators say his outspoken behavior at school board meetings is one reason.
In a letter from the district dated April 1 and shared with OPB, a senior administrator outlined four allegations against Chu; two involve disrupting board meetings. Chu is also accused of telling a student to “shut up,” and school district leaders allege that Chu coached students to send letters criticizing the relocation of Harriet Tubman Middle School. Portland Public Schools leaders are moving the school due to the Interstate 5 freeway expansion.
According to the letter by Emily Gaffney, Portland Public Schools senior manager of employee and labor relations, Chu is on paid leave pending the outcome of a personnel investigation into his alleged misconduct, and he is being kept out of the classroom due to concerns that his presence might interfere with the investigation.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to stand on the right side of history,” Chu said. “If that means losing my job, then why would I want to work in a school or a school system that values dishonesty?”
The letter addressed to Chu says he “swore, yelled, and disrupted” a board meeting on Feb. 22. That meeting came after news of potential staffing cuts in the district, and PPS board Chair Michelle DePass had to call a brief recess due to yelling from several people in the audience.
Another teacher of color, Ockley Green Middle School teacher Chris Riser, told OPB he was also placed under investigation for allegations that he was “disruptive and interrupted proceedings by yelling” during the Feb. 22 meeting, but he is not on leave.
Riser was one of several teachers and a few students who showed up in support of Chu at Tuesday’s PPS board meeting. Some held signs. One read, “Stop silencing voices of dissent!!!”
Riser said he has a long professional relationship with Chu, starting with Riser’s first experience in the district as a teaching candidate. Riser said he wanted to share a “character reference” of Chu.
“I’ve never seen another educator who is so dedicated and in tune with their students and what they need,” Riser said, “who knows how to push them really hard to excel.”
Some 8th grade students attending their first in-person board meeting Tuesday told OPB they disagreed strongly with characterizations that they were “coached” to write letters criticizing the Tubman relocation.
“We had no idea that the relocation and the expansion of the highway was happening, and he gave us the resources to become these advocates for our rights as students, and for our voices to be heard,” said a student named Sonja, who attended the meeting alongside fellow middle schoolers Stella and Zoe.
“It wasn’t even graded!” Stella added.
“His classroom was one of the only safe spaces that all the students felt like they could go to if they were having a hard time,” Sonja said. “He was always there and just very understanding of the students and their needs, and could always communicate with us clearly.”
Via email, another 8th grader shared that Chu made class “fun and engaging”.
Two of the district’s allegations against Chu stem from conversation around the Harriet Tubman relocation.
At a March meeting of the board’s facilities and operations committee, Chu said that efforts to engage the Tubman School community regarding the location had been insufficient, citing a late-afternoon meeting right before winter break.
“That doesn’t sound like engagement, that sounds like disengagement,” Chu said at the meeting, directing his words at the school district’s director of community engagement, Shanice Clarke. “... If your job is to engage the community, you failed at your job.”
That prompted some back-and-forth between Chu and Dani Ledezma, the district’s senior advisor for racial equity and social justice.
“There are a lot of moving pieces to this process that are beyond the control of PPS, of PPS staff, that are there,” Ledezma said. “And so, without that understanding or knowledge, telling someone that they failed at their position isn’t really helpful or productive in these discussions.”
At the same meeting, district and board officials mentioned Chu’s students sending letters to the superintendent asking to be a part of the conversation around moving their school. One staffer asked Chu how to best facilitate conversations with students.
Chu said the superintendent forwarded the students’ letters to Clarke.
“If you read the letters, it says nothing other than the fact that like, ‘Yo, we don’t feel like we’ve been engaged in this process, and we’re inviting you to come down and have a conversation with us,’” Chu said.
Regarding the allegation that he said “shut up” to a student, Chu said he’d expect any staff who heard him say that to come into his classroom. Instead, he said, a student told him they were asked about Chu saying “shut up” by another adult.
At the same time, Chu said there are possible situations where he may have said that — for example, if a student was disrupting class.
“Sometimes I do need to say ‘shut up,’ because you’ve been in school for this long, and I’ve asked you to please be quiet... on so many occasions,” Chu said.
Sonja, one of Chu’s students, said saying “shut up” isn’t a valid reason to put him on leave.
“He has so much to bring to the school, that to take him out just because of inconveniences, or just because the board feels threatened, is so unfair,” Sonja said.
“It just feels like they’re trying to point out all these tiny things... and just make it this big thing,” Stella said.
The district also alleged that Chu directed an obscenity at Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero during a November 2021 union listening session.
Chu said the investigation into his actions may silence other teachers from speaking out against decisions made by district leadership. He also worries about the impact this may have on his students, leaving them without their teacher.
“I love teaching, even in this moment,” Chu said. “The reason why I fight so much, is I don’t want to go to a board meeting. I want to teach, that’s what I got into this for. And I love going to Harriet Tubman because my class is dope. … We can have a conversation, it’s a place where our humanity is recognized.”
District officials did not confirm Chu’s leave, citing confidentiality, but shared a statement with OPB Tuesday evening.
“We welcome engagement with our employees, families and community members, including a variety of perspectives and opinions. We also take the conduct of our professionals very seriously, and we expect a certain level of decorum in classrooms and in public.”