A high-level administrator at the Oregon Department of Education was accused of sexual harassment last year. Despite being found to have done some of the things he was accused of, he remains in a leadership position in a key state agency.
A state investigation found that Mitch Kruska, the state’s director of education programs and assessment, inappropriately touched a junior female staffer, insinuated sexual interest in her and boasted of mistreating a female underling, all at an after-hours meet-up at a bar. Kruska was accused of other transgressions that night — June 21, 2016 — including homophobic comments and objections to management equity trainings. But the ODE investigation did not substantiate those.
Kruska denied all the charges — in sometimes profane language — in investigation interviews, according to 75 pages provided to OPB through a public records request. In a letter included in that record, Kruska’s attorney Larry Linder picks apart the state’s evidence, repeats Kruska’s denials and argues “there have previously been no allegations” of similar behavior from the director.
When Kruska first sat down with lead investigator Deb Skiles and Assistant Superintendent Sarah Drinkwater, he appeared to have thought the interview was about a different matter, saying, “Oh, I thought it was …” He didn’t finish that statement.
Oregon education officials told OPB that there are records of other complaints against Kruska, including one that has prompted a “new, pending investigation.”
Kruska is part of the state leadership team that is “responsible to ensure the free appropriate public education for all children with disabilities in Oregon,” a critical part of the state’s mandate to educate all children in the state.
According to ODE, Kruska “heads the Education Programs, Secondary Transition and Alternate Assessment team, with responsibility over education programs at hospitals, juvenile detention and youth corrections, long-term care and treatment,” including the Oregon School for the Deaf. Kruska’s group also administers the “extended assessment” for students with special needs, and it offers “transition support for students with disabilities.”
‘She Didn’t Know What To Do’
Skiles started examining the events of June 21, 2016, shortly after the ODE junior staffer who had met with Kruska shared her discomfort from that evening with a work colleague. The coworker reported the incident to Kruska’s supervisor, Drinkwater.
The investigative report suggests the ODE employee who met with Kruska was reluctant to report her experience. In an interview with Skiles, the staffer said she worried Kruska could “retaliate” against her, even though she was leaving ODE.
The ensuing investigation concluded that three of four specific allegations against Kruska were at least partially true. Kruska has denied the validity of all of them, though he accepted punishment related to the incidents. He did not appeal the outcome to the Employment Relations Board.
The complaints all relate to what happened at an out-of-town education conference attended by a number of ODE employees, including Kruska and at least one other director.
Among those attending the conference was a woman who had worked in the Office of Student Services for about six months as a program specialist. She worked in a different area of the state agency than Kruska, under a different director, who was also at the conference. Her name, and those of other interviewed witnesses, were redacted from public records to protect their confidentiality, and OPB was unable to contact them directly.
At an afternoon social event, Kruska asked the junior staffer for her cell phone number. She was soon leaving the agency for a school district job at the time. Kruska said he asked for the number in case he learned of other positions she might be interested in, and she gave it to him.
That night, the junior staffer, who is gay, was at a bar with her girlfriend, who does not work at ODE. They were waiting for another state colleague, who wound up canceling. But Kruska texted the junior staffer at the cell number he’d gotten from her earlier that day, according to the investigative record.
“Where are you?” Kruska texted just after 9 p.m. She didn’t respond, she said, because she didn’t recognize the number.
The junior staffer said she then got a call from Kruska, which she answered, and that’s how he found them at the bar. Kruska disputed some of these efforts at contacting the staffer at the bar, but he acknowledged meeting up that night, probably around 9:30 p.m., according to state records.
From all accounts, it was an awkward encounter. From Kruska’s standpoint, that’s all it was. But from what the two women told state investigators, Kruska’s behavior included inappropriate touching, sexual harassment, degrading comments about someone he supervised and homophobia.
Investigators at the Oregon Department of Education largely concluded that the women’s version of events was more accurate than Kruska’s account despite his vehement and sometimes profane denials in investigative interviews.
The ODE staffer said she introduced her partner to Kruska multiple times when he first arrived at the bar on June 21, but she said Kruska basically ignored the other woman. The ODE staffer said when Kruska finally acknowledged her partner, he questioned their sexual preference, saying that “lesbians aren’t really gay — they’re just desperate.”
Kruska told state human resources investigators he never said that, adding that would be “f——— stupid.” Investigators summarized that Kruska “said he has never made comments about gay and lesbian people.”
The junior ODE staffer said that Kruska had been drinking “heavily” at the earlier conference social event and was “very drunk,” according to the investigative interview with Drinkwater.
The ODE staffer said she tried to change the subject, by mentioning a female education specialist in Kruska’s education programs and assessment area. Kruska said he didn’t remember talking about her. But the junior staffer said Kruska confirmed he was that person’s boss and then went on to complain about that person’s work habits.
According to records, Kruska complained at the bar that his underling seemed to “just stare at her computer,” and he had to “put that b—— in a box and made sure she didn’t have anything to do.” The staffer’s partner corroborated that account, according to investigators, though she left out the profanity.
At an investigative interview about two weeks after the bar encounter, Kruska briefly suggested cutting off the interview when the discussion focused on his employee. He told the investigator he might want to get a lawyer. Then he changed his mind and continued, the state report says, calling the allegation “complete b———-.”
The evening at the bar only got more uncomfortable after the conversation about Kruska’s subordinate, according to the investigation.
The discussion switched to racial inequality, the women told investigators, during which Kruska allegedly said he didn’t like ODE’s management trainings on diversity, saying “[he] can’t help it if [he was] born a white male.” The state employee later told investigators that Kruska said her partner was “big, almost like a man,” but that he liked “beautiful, strong women.”
At this point in the evening, the junior staffer said her partner lost patience with Kruska, calling him a “homophobic m—————-” and a “racist,” though her partner didn’t recall saying those things in investigative interviews. Kruska didn’t remember it either, and again, told investigators he said nothing inappropriate or derogatory about lesbians.
Kruska then allegedly said that the junior staffer “was on [his] list,” implying he wanted to have sex with her.
Kruska denied making any statements about ODE training requirements. He also denied implying he was attracted to the state employee.
According to the investigator’s notes, the two women got up to leave at this point, though Kruska’s version of events suggests that he left first. The women allege Kruska slapped them both on the butt.
Kruska denied touching either woman inappropriately. He said earlier that day at the conference social event, the ODE staffer had initiated hugs and touched his feet with hers. The staffer’s partner told investigators that Kruska initiated a hug with the ODE staffer at the bar. According to handwritten investigative notes, the staffer’s partner said “[the ODE staffer] didn’t feel comfortable saying no, because [Kruska] was a manager at ODE … She didn’t know what to do, so [she] didn’t do anything,” according to official handwritten investigative notes.
During his interview, Kruska questioned the credibility of the ODE staffer accusing him of inappropriate behavior. He said that the staffer had previously misled her supervisor about whether she’d been recruited for her new school district job.
ODE investigated in summer 2016 by interviewing Kruska, the ODE staffer and her partner, and three other ODE employees, including another director, who learned of the events while at the conference.
ODE summarized the allegations into four parts:
- Kruska “made inappropriate comments about LGBT people”
- Kruska “made an inappropriate comment about [his direct report] when he said he ‘put that b—— in a box’”
- Kruska “touched [ODE junior staffer] inappropriately when he slapped her on the butt”
- Kruska insinuated he wanted to have sex with [ODE junior staffer] when he said she was ‘on his list’”
All but the first allegation were substantiated, at least in part, investigators concluded.
Kruska’s attorney, Larry Linder, sent a three-page response on Aug. 11, 2016, pointing out discrepancies or lack of documentation of the allegations against his client. Linder’s letter acknowledged that Kruska “put himself in a difficult position by allowing himself to be alone at a bar with two females after hours, one of which works for ODE.”
The letter suggested Kruska receive a “letter of instruction,” about being alone with people of the opposite sex and that he should not “engage in the type of behavior that has been alleged here.”
ODE’s punishment went further than Kruska’s attorney called for, but not as far as dismissing or suspending the director. The department’s memo to Kruska indicated the preferred punishment of docking his pay was not available, because of Kruska’s status as an “exempt” manager — a conclusion based on a human resources policy outlined by the Oregon Department of Administrative Services. Kruska earned $119,000 a year at the time of a 2015-16 Statesman Journal survey of state employee salaries.
“The Department considers your actions to be of a serious nature. These actions warrant a disciplinary action beyond just a letter of reprimand,” Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Administration Rick Crager told Kruska in an Oct. 11, 2016 letter.
Crager’s letter informed Kruska that he would be receiving a “reprimand in lieu of salary reduction,” on the grounds of his “inability or unwillingness to fully and faithfully perform the duties of the position satisfactorily.”
In an email to OPB this month, Kruska continued to maintain that the allegations against him are “false.”
OPB requested investigative files related to sexual harassment allegations against Mitch Kruska from the Oregon Department of Education. ODE initially denied the request, but when OPB appealed to the Oregon Department of Justice, the agencies reached a settlement with OPB, releasing redacted records. The names of victims, witnesses and the location of the conference were redacted.
In an unusual step, ODE also shared a statement with all department staff and the State Board of Education at the same time it released documents to OPB. That statement read, in part, “ODE has an obligation to protect the privacy of personnel actions to the full extent of the law. As a public agency, we also have an obligation to release information in accordance with the law governing public records.”
ODE declined to comment on the investigation or punishment, saying it does not comment on personnel matters.
The department-wide email on the Kruska matter cited an Oct. 25, 2017 statement from Gov. Kate Brown, made a year after the Kruska matter concluded. It read, in part: “We should acknowledge those who are experiencing harassment every day, and for fear of retaliation, losing their jobs, families, or even lives, are not empowered to take a public stand against it.
“This is absolutely unacceptable. These issues must be directly addressed. Every person deserves to be respected and has the right to live, work, and simply walk down the street safely. The state of Oregon has no tolerance for workplace discrimination and harassment of any kind.”
Mitch Kruska has worked at the Oregon Department of Education since Dec. 30, 2013. He was previously the special education director at the Fern Ridge School District in Lane County. Officials at Fern Ridge were unable to say immediately whether Kruska had been the subject of any documented complaints during his tenure there.