Former Employee: Education District Handled Discrimination Claims 'So Freaking Poorly'

By Rob Manning (OPB)
July 2, 2015 12:40 a.m.

A Portland-area education agency discriminated against Oregon's 2014 Teacher of the Year — and retaliated against him when he complained, according to state investigators.

The Multnomah Education Service District supported having its special education teacher, Brett Bigham, become Teacher of the Year for 2014. But Bigham — who is openly gay — began lodging official complaints last year, alleging he was suffering improper treatment stemming from his sexual orientation.

“Not everyone wants to go to college, not everyone can afford to go to college." Special education teacher Brett Bigham, 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year.

“Not everyone wants to go to college, not everyone can afford to go to college." Special education teacher Brett Bigham, 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year.

Sergio Cisneros / OPB

Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries was several months into an investigation when the MESD settled with Bigham for $140,000 last month.


With the settlement, the BOLI investigation is over.

Officials released interviews and other materials from the investigation Wednesday. In a summary memo, lead investigator Andrea Damewood finds "if the case had gone forward, a determination of substantial evidence of discrimination and retaliation on the basis of [Bigham's] sexual orientation, whistleblowing activity, and for opposing unlawful practices... would have been recommended."

Bigham has said the problems began shortly after he became Teacher of the Year — an honor that typically takes teachers out of the classroom regularly for special events, including speaking engagements.  

Bigham filed his first in a series of complaints in November 2014.

He said MESD officials were putting conditions on what speeches he could make and what events he could attend. Bigham says at one point, his supervisor, Jeanne Zuniga, told him "someone is going to shoot you in the head" — as a caution against discussing his sexual orientation in rural Oregon.

In discussing discrimination, BOLI investigators note that statement, as well as decisions by the MESD to prevent Bigham from appearing before gay youth groups, led them to believe Bigham's claims had merit.  

Bigham also resisted attempts by the MESD to vet his speeches. The agency's communications officer, Mark Skolnick said he didn't want to be Bigham's "handler," either. As to Bigham's discussion of his sexual orientation, Skolnick said Zuniga overreacted.

Skolnick saw Bigham give a speech to the Oregon Public Relations Associations, which included mention of the teacher's sexual orientation.

"No one was bothered by him mentioning he was gay," Skolnick said. "It's Portland. It's Oregon. It's not 1960. If people are uncomfortable about it, too bad."

Skolnick is now retired, and he looks back at the conflict between Bigham and their former employer with chagrin.

"The whole thing was handled so freaking poorly," he told investigators. "I was really really disappointed we would blow to such a degree to have a [Teacher of the Year]... Somehow we were blowing it and we did blow it, absolutely."

Interviews with Bigham's co-workers confirm a handful of retaliatory actions, including that Bigham's desk was moved while he was away.

But the BOLI interviews show some nuance, as well. Some of Bigham's former co-workers suggest he was being treated differently, but also bore some responsibility.

Thirty-year veteran educational assistant Paul Sigel told investigators that Bigham had a habit of taking things personally.

"I think what Brett does is sometimes overreact to a directive," Sigel said.

But Sigel told BOLI he agreed with Bigham's overall claim that he had been retaliated against.

"I think there's retaliation going on," Sigel said. "I've seen teachers singled out and treated differently than other teachers. From what I've seen, I think Brett's being targeted."

BOLI also interviewed Barbara Jorgensen. She was the MESD superintendent in 2014, but has since resigned. Jorgensen claimed in many of her answers not to be aware of what was happening with Bigham.

BOLI concluded that MESD pressured Bigham, by withholding his attendance at a National Education Association event unless he dropped his complaints.

The investigation quotes an email from Human Resources Director Heyke Nickerson that says, "In exchange for granting this request, MESD requests... Brett withdraws his BOLI/EEOC complaint and releases all claims."

MESD statements deny Bigham's claims, often with little further explanation. But at one point, MESD claims it did have problems with Bigham as a teacher. It says his contract was renewed for 2015-16, last March, "despite serious concerns with his performance, insubordinate behavior, and focus on matters other than his students."

BOLI's investigation didn't officially conclude, but investigator Andrea Damewood was poised to find in favor of Bigham.

"Evidence exists that some discrimination did occur," Damewood wrote. "However, [Bigham's] working environment and terms and conditions of employment deteriorated dramatically after he protested this unlawful discrimination after he filed complaints with BOLI and other relevant agencies, to the point where he was suspended and terminated indicates substantial evidence of unlawful employment practices."