The Oregonian/OregonLive first reported a litany of sexual misconduct allegations last year against Mitchell Whitehurst, a longtime teacher and coach at Portland Public Schools.
Whitehurst’s unwanted sexual contact, lewd comments and inappropriate advances were regularly ignored, downplayed or mishandled over decades as they surfaced at seven schools, ranging from elementary through high schools over a 33-year period.
Whitehurst left the school district in 2016. His teaching license is listed as “revoked” by the Oregon Teachers Standards and Practices Commission.
The revelations prompted the Portland Public Schools board to hire outside investigators to look further into the problems and return with recommendations.
“So that when parents send their kids to school in the morning, they can feel confident that their kids will be safe,” school board chair Julia Brim-Edwards said when calling for the report.
Investigators returned this week with an exhaustive 322-page report confirming what The Oregonian/OregonLive reported and adding further details, additional allegations and systemic problems in need of addressing.
Investigators complained that Portland Public Schools’ email system does not provide access to messages from before 2011, limiting the paper trail. But that problem pales compared to the required practice, under the district’s contract with the Portland Association of Teachers, that complaint records be regularly purged from personnel files.
“We could not ascertain what documentation, if any, was ever placed in Mr. Whitehurst’s files,” the report said. “When we received a copy of Mr. Whitehurst’s 360-page personnel record, it was void of any discipline or other documentation of any inappropriate behavior.”
Despite the lack of information in Whitehurst’s personnel file, a chronology in the investigation report finds at least nine incidents between 1982 and 2001. There were likely more, but several entries are completely hidden by redactions in the investigative report. The chronology summarizes complaints, from numerous witnesses including students and parents, as well as an extended examination of Whitehurst’s behavior at Faubion K-8 in 2012-13 school year. That investigation ended with the conclusion that “this was probably a middle school rumor,” according to the report released this week.
School board members reacted with a commitment to acting on the investigation.
“As parents and district leaders, it was painful to read of the systemic and individual failures that the report revealed,” read a joint response from school board members and Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero.
The statement continued with a commitment to enact policy changes.
“That includes improving training for employees, volunteers, students, and for those who investigate sexual conduct complaints,” the statement said. “We will implement and revise relevant policies and directives. We will improve the tracking system to document all sexual conduct complaints. We are inviting the Portland Association of Teachers to partner with us to review contract provisions that were shown to have interfered with detecting the misconduct.”
PPS could renegotiate aspects of the teachers contract, but would need the cooperation of the Portland Association of Teachers to do so before the contract expires next year.
The Portland Association of Teachers, the local teachers union for PPS, issued a statement Friday in response to the investigators’ report.
“We will make every effort to work with the district moving forward to ensure that every allegation is properly and fairly investigated in a timely fashion,” the PAT statement read. “There is absolutely no desire to have policies in place that protect people who abuse children.”
The PAT did not suggest an early opening of the contract to address the aspects called out by investigators, such as the regular purging of complaint information in teachers’ files.