Portland Public Schools administration building

Portland Public Schools administration building

Rob Manning/OPB

Portland Public Schools launched an investigation Tuesday into an alleged pattern of sexual harassment and abuse by a former teacher and coach.

The Portland school board hired an outside investigative team that includes former federal and county prosecutors to look into sexual misconduct first reported in stories by The Oregonian. Former students accused Mitchell Whitehurst of sex offenses over more than a 20-year period.

Board chair Julia Brim-Edwards said the investigation will look at what broke down – and how to fix it – in order to guarantee kids are safe at Portland schools.

“As a parent who had a child who had Mr. Whitehurst as a teacher, I think that was my expectation,” said Brim-Edwards, her voice shaking. “I think the district can do better and wants to do better. I think this investigation – and most importantly, the recommendations – will set PPS on a path so that when parents send their kids to school in the morning, they can feel confident that their kids will be safe.”  

Brim-Edwards outlined the scope of the investigation, which is intended to cover more than a dozen questions such as: 

  • What notice of possible concerns about Whitehurst did the district receive?
  • What response did the district make to each notice received, and what was the timeline for those responses?
  • What policies, directives and procedures were in place at that time that would have been applicable to the concerns raised?
  • Were there systemic failures and/or employee performance failures, and if so, what were they?
  • Did any PPS employee or employees fail to comply with mandatory reporting requirements, or violate any policies, laws or ethics rules?
  • Is there any evidence that any person or group of people protected Mr. Whitehurst?
  • Is there any indication that district personnel used transfers as a way to avoid taking disciplinary action?

Board member Amy Kohnstamm cautioned her colleagues and the investigative team to focus on learning what went wrong in order to improve protections going forward.

“In terms of the personal accountability for employees within this district, there are not very many of them who are still employed by this district,” Kohnstamm said. “[It] doesn’t mean we don’t want to look at those pieces, but what we really want to understand is what allowed those complaints to go unheard.”

According to The Oregonian, the first complaint filed against Whitehurst dated back to 2001, though the newspaper interviewed students who alleged problems with him dating back to the 1980s when he started at Portland Public Schools. Concerns about Whitehurst persisted until recently, including an allegation from a former teacher in 2015.

Brim-Edwards didn’t want to steer investigators away from digging into what individual employees did, or didn’t do, though she agreed with Kohnstamm’s emphasis on systemic failures.

“I think this is going to be a balance, because I do think parents in the community are going to want answers,” Brim-Edwards said.

The board budgeted up to $125,000 for the investigation. The team will include Norman Frink, who retired from the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office after 35 years as a government prosecutor.

He’ll be joined by former chief of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s office for the District of Oregon, Bob Weaver, as well as Joy Ellis, an attorney with 20 years of experience in employment and education law.