Celeste Karzon saw warning signs before she arrived at Chemawa Indian School in 2009.
According to Karzon, the school overstated her expected salary as an English teacher by thousands of dollars.
“They showed me a salary chart and quoted salary, but they neglected to tell me that it was for 365 days,” Karzon said. Her actual pay would be based on the school calendar.
Then Karzon didn’t get a teaching schedule until the day classes started, meaning she didn’t know which topics or grade levels to prepare for.
“There was this sense of disorganization and dysfunction that started at the very beginning,” she said. “I knew I was going into an environment that strained its staff.”
Karzon overlooked her concerns. She had sold her house in South Dakota and moved halfway across the country to work at Chemawa, a federally run boarding school for Native American teens.
The Salem campus serves some of the most vulnerable students in the country, which Karzon knew would be a challenge. That’s exactly what she wanted.
Her father is Ojibwe and motivated her to work with Native youth.
“I have a huge commitment to Native American education,” she said. “That population of students is really important to me. So I sought out Native American schools throughout the country.”
Before Chemawa, she’d left a teaching post at a Native American drug treatment center and she wanted a similarly challenging environment.
By her second year at Chemawa, Karzon and fellow English teacher Joy O’Renick said they both were drawing commendations and praise from the administration for their work with students.
O’Renick said school administrators would bring guests through each of their classrooms to show them off.
“We were really the golden kids,” O’Renick said. “Until we caused trouble.”
In the 2010 school year, the two had mounting concerns about student discipline, academic policies and support for staff. They said they first talked to a supervisor. Unsatisfied with the response, they eventually went around their supervisors and sounded the alarm via emails with tribal members on the school’s advisory board and high-level administrators at the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), which oversees Chemawa.
Both women received a letter of reprimand from the Bureau of Indian Affairs for breaking the chain of command.
“Really, from that time forward I had a target on my back,” Karzon said. “My boss made my life uncomfortable in any way that she could.”
Karzon said the trouble began with little things. She was moved into a classroom she said resembled a cave — too small to accommodate her students. She was told not to communicate with fellow teachers over email. She was docked pay if she was 15 minutes late but never compensated for the times she stayed late.
The Bureau of Indian Education did not grant OPB’s request to interview the two teachers’ former supervisors. Other officials at the school, such as current superintendent Lora Braucher, have denied allegations of retaliation at the school. Some say Chemawa is a challenging environment, and certain staff members have simply struggled with the pressure or failed to recognize the proper chain of command within the BIE.
Who Runs Chemawa Indian School?
Source: Chemawa Indian School website
The BIE has a strict chain of command policy, which calls for conflict to be resolved at the lowest level possible. Those familiar with the bureau say it’s a rigid system that can stifle honest communication between staff and higher-level administrators.
BIE Director Tony Dearman said he doesn’t expect employees to always be happy, and there are proper channels for those employees to voice opinions. He said Chemawa should not be viewed as a hostile environment based on a few cases.
“One or two or three employees is not the entire school,” Dearman said.
Over multiple years of reporting, OPB talked with dozens of staff members, students and former school board members. They described a deep love for Chemawa — a place Native students from across the country can call their own, living and learning alongside children from other tribes.
But they also consistently described Chemawa as a place where the relationship between staff and administration was often toxic, where concerns over education and the treatment of students and staff have persisted because attempts to expose problems are met with retaliation.
Through interviews and documents, OPB has identified more than 20 staff members since 2010 who said they experienced retaliation or hostility from campus leadership.
Some instances resulted in formal complaints to federal overseers or escalated into lawsuits. In 2010, a special education teacher filed a wrongful termination suit against Chemawa, winning reinstatement and back pay. At least three other labor-related complaints against Chemawa have been settled in the years since, and at least one other employee’s case against the school is pending in the federal Equal Opportunity Employment process.
Former Chemawa workers allege those who crossed administrators have been fired, docked pay, penalized in performance reviews, passed over for stipend work, reassigned to the kitchens or banned from campus. Some students at the school have said teachers seem afraid to advocate for them.
Portland-based attorney John Burgess has represented two staff members and consulted with numerous others at the federal boarding school.
“I got the impression of a clique at the top that engaged in widespread retaliatory conduct that was resented by a large number of employees at the school,” Burgess said.
The Need For Change
Any dysfunction at Chemawa is, in part, the product of dysfunction within the Bureau of Indian Education, an agency with a history of documented problems involving oversight of academics, facilities and finances at its 183 schools across the country.
Meanwhile, students at Chemawa come from some of the most challenging circumstances around. Some enter the boarding school from unstable home environments, struggling with drug use and several grade levels behind. The combination leaves school leaders with a nearly impossible task.
Between 2006 and 2013, Chemawa had eight different superintendents.
Current superintendent Lora Braucher, hired in 2014, spoke about the challenges of entering Chemawa with that much turnover during a talk at Corban University earlier this year.
Leadership Turnover At Chemawa
Source: OPB staff reporting
“When you come into that situation, your staff sort of sit back and go, ‘Well, how long is this one going to last?’ and ‘What are your intentions?’” Braucher said. “You tend to want to be trusting of others, but you also feel like you’re under attack at times.”
She later told OPB she was specifically hired as a turnaround specialist for Chemawa and that some staff might not be fans of change. But, she said, those staff have avenues for voicing their frustration. Recent test score data Braucher provided to OPB shows she has made progress improving achievement at Chemawa.
“The level of expectations and accountability has raised significantly since I’ve been here,” she said. “And there are some staff who are not happy about that because it has created the need for change.”
With a rotating cast at the top and a firewall between teachers and the federal bureaucracy, disgruntled staff members have directed most of their criticism toward several veteran administrators: academic principal Amanda Ward, business manager Rachenda Reynosa and Ryan Cox, the assistant principal for federal programs. They’ve all been at Chemawa for more than a decade.
In recent years, Braucher has been a target of criticism from staff and students, as well.
The Bureau of Indian Education granted an interview only with Braucher. She said she doesn’t know where claims of retaliation are coming from, particularly in the years since she arrived.
“I don’t know of any staff member that’s been retaliated against for bringing concerns,” she said. “As a matter of fact, since I’ve been here in the last three years, one of the things I continued to communicate over and over is about our constant need to improve how we serve students and be problem solvers.
“I would say it’s unfortunate that they feel that way, especially when we’re constantly trying to work to make those improvements,” Braucher said.
Ted Mack spent 20 years at Chemawa, including time as interim superintendent. He retired in 2016 as the school’s residential director and still works at the school as a substitute teacher. He defended fellow school administrators.
“I’ll be honest, there’s some people who used to work there that had some negative experiences, so everything about the place is negative to them. And everything they can think of always has a negative connotation,” Mack said.
He said Chemawa’s leaders have a difficult job and care deeply about the students. Mack said complaints from former staff members overlook all the good they have done for Chemawa students over the years. But he acknowledged conflicts between staff and past administrators.
“I’m not going to say there wasn’t retaliation. There may have been. I don’t think right now that’s the case in most circumstances,” Mack said. “There might be a little of that going on yet, but I don’t really want to say too much more on that.”
Others say the pattern hasn’t changed under a new superintendent.
In 2016, a former employee sued the school, claiming racial insensitivity from her supervisor and reprisal when she spoke up about it.
Education technician Stephanie Wood, who is Native, alleged in court documents that colleagues and a supervisor at the school continually made “derogatory racial comments” about her. Wood said school management knew about this but failed to stop it.
Wood’s lawsuit alleges that after making multiple complaints about the behavior and suggesting diversity training for her department, she was fired in retaliation. The suit says the school accused Wood of misadvising students as a pretext for her firing.
Wood said she was later instructed she could no longer set foot on the Chemawa grounds or speak with students or employees, which left her “unable to utilize the health clinic, attend powwows or speak to various family members who were graduates of the school,” according to the lawsuit.
Attorneys for the government said they lacked sufficient knowledge about most of the complaints in Wood’s case, but denied using any pretext to fire her in retaliation. The case was settled Oct. 18.
In 2015, a maintenance worker named Jesse Bostwick said he started asking questions about the school budget after he applied for a job posting for a drama teacher at Chemawa. Bostwick, a former drama student and Siletz tribal member, later found out the position was never actually filled. He wanted to know why and what happened to the money for it.
“When I requested the union ask on my behalf, I began to have random complaints and just a hostile feel from the administration,” Bostwick said.
Bostwick’s former supervisor in the facilities department also told OPB that Bostwick faced hostility from others at the school. Bostwick said Chemawa administrators accused him of leaving custodial work undone and making repeated attempts to access inappropriate websites on school computers. He said those claims are not true.
Bostwick resigned because of the latter accusation. He’s been mostly out of work since. When he resigned, he wrote an email to BIE officials and Chemawa staff accusing Chemawa leadership of targeting him. He did not get a response.
In documents and accounts from those familiar with the school, staff complaints often end up this way: complex, murky and with both sides disputing the facts.
Banned From Chemawa
Lisa Gonsalves worked at Chemawa as a dorm matron in the 1990s. She left in 2000 for a career in the Air Force, which included tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She returned to the school in 2015. She took a job in student transportation, which involved shuttling students at the boarding school to and from medical appointments. But when she returned to campus after her military service, she found a work environment she said was so hostile she quit after less than a year.
“I didn’t even have this kind of issue when I was stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, while bombs were dropping and bullets were flying,” she told school board members in a December 2015 email, shortly after she’d resigned from Chemawa.
Several former students and staff have said school management attempts to mask problems at the school. Gonsalves points to her last day on campus as an example of that happening at the expense of a student.
The events of that day are the subject of dispute between her and Chemawa.
Here’s how Gonsalves tells it: It was a busy day, late in the fall term. School board members had arrived on campus.
Chemawa’s school board is made up of tribal members from various communities. They serve in an advisory role and as liaisons to various tribes. People on campus always knew when they met, former staff and students said, because administrators would tighten procedures and be more visible on campus.
The same day, Gonsalves planned to drive a student to the hospital.
“My boy had an ear infection — a really bad one,” Gonsalves said. He needed a procedure for the infection, she said, before he got on a plane to fly home for winter break. So she was taking him to an ear, nose and throat specialist.
Gonsalves grabbed the keys for the newest of several SUVs Chemawa had — a detail that didn’t seem important until she got a call from the school. She said Superintendent Lora Braucher wanted the vehicle.
“She didn’t want any other vehicle because she was driving around the school board,” Gonsalves said.
Gonsalves said she tried to convince the school to let her take the student to the hospital first to avoid missing the boy’s surgery appointment.
“She ended up making me miss the appointment for this kid,” Gonsalves said. “This kid had to go home with a hole in his eardrum.”
Braucher, however, denies Gonsalves’ account of the day.
“I have never called a vehicle back to a school when a student needed a medical appointment. I have no knowledge of what you’re talking about,” she told OPB. “I actually talked to the supervisor over the transportation department, and she is not aware of any time that has ever occurred.”
After Gonsalves quit in late 2015, she wrote a furious text message to school management. She accused them of bullying behavior and said she regretted moving to Oregon to work at Chemawa after her teenage daughter, a former Chemawa student, died from a pulmonary embolism.
“I move my entire family for this position not to be bullied but to work with students,” Gonsalves wrote. “One day I hope you endure my pain of losing a child, then moving your family thinking its [sic] the best but it was way worse them dealing with a boss who never like you to begin with. Karma my dead daughter always believed in it. Time will tell.”
Gonsalves said school management found this threatening and banned her from campus in response. It became part of her federal employment record.
She now works for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, dealing with safety inspections for government vehicles in Salem. Being banned from Chemawa came up in her job interview.
“Even with my current federal position, they’re like, ‘Well, why were you banned from federal property?’” Gonsalves said.
Close watchers of the school say they have heard life gets worse for those who question or criticize leadership at Chemawa.
“That I know happens,” said Delores Pigsley. “Some have ended up unemployed.”
Pigsley, chair of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon, has close ties to Chemawa. She’s a former board member. Her son still works there, along with other family members. The school’s business manager is her niece.
Pigsley said every time she visits the school, one staff member or another tells her about a problem.
“I hear a lot about the issues, personnel, wrongdoings,” Pigsley said. “My advice is always, ‘Talk to your supervisor.’ If that doesn’t work, you talk to the next guy up the line. If that doesn’t work, you go straight to the superintendent or whoever is in charge. Put it in writing. And something will happen.”
At Chemawa, some former staff say that hasn’t worked.
‘Go Along … Or Find A Way Out’
Back in 2010, when Celeste Karzon was a young teacher at Chemawa, she began to notice problems she couldn’t overlook.
“I taught a student, who is in the special education program,” Karzon said. “He took ninth grade English as a junior, and I failed him because he wasn’t able to complete the work. And I was pressured at the end of the year to change his grade.”
Later in the year, Karzon found herself in a meeting with a school administrator and the boy’s parent.
“I glanced over, and I saw his transcript sitting on the table,” she said. “I looked at the English portion of his transcript, and it was completely filled in.”
In other words: After Karzon wouldn’t change his grade, someone else did. Other former students and staff members have alleged similar transcript changes, but school administrators deny any such practice.
“That shouldn’t be allowed to happen, in any stretch of the imagination, should someone who needs additional help with reading be allowed to have a high school diploma, when they’ve only passed one semester of English,” Karzon said. “And it shouldn’t be his fault.”
It was this kind of concern that led Karzon, O’Renick and other teachers to speak out, they said. They wrote to the school’s tribal advisory board, federal regulators and members of Congress.
O’Renick said she was heartened in 2011 after a top bureau official in Washington, D.C., promised action.
Then word got back to Chemawa.
“In the middle of staff meeting, I was directed downstairs to the lower offices of Chemawa,” O’Renick said.
She was led to a small room she recalls was empty save for a desk and a phone. O’Renick was told to pick up the phone, she said. The BIE official for the Northwest region was on the other end.
“He chewed me out,” O’Renick said. “He said, ‘How dare you? You caused all this chaos, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
When the federal government did open an investigation of staff complaints at Chemawa, it was supervised by that same BIE official.
“We all knew, he had just literally chewed me out on the phone and then he showed up to investigate,” O’Renick said.
Several staff members recall a room was set up for the investigation in a hallway near management offices, with an administrator seated outside. The name of each person who went in to speak was put on a whiteboard, for everyone else to see.
O’Renick and others on staff at the time said the investigation resulted in no real changes.
Staff at Chemawa describe two options, according to labor attorney John Burgess, who has represented multiple Chemawa employees in disputes with the school.
“People figure out they either need to go along, and that’s one career path,” he said, “or they need to find a way out of there before they get retaliated against.”
O’Renick left in 2011, after just a year at Chemawa. She later became a principal in the David Douglas School District and now works as a vice principal at Oaklea Middle School in Junction City, Oregon.
Karzon stayed. And, she said, it cost her.
“I locked myself in my room, not because I wanted to be isolated from my colleagues, it was to be protected from the administration,” she said.
Students and fellow teachers spoke well of Karzon. She worked at Chemawa until 2014, when she left for a temporary job at Portland’s Benson High School.
After she left, Chemawa filed a complaint with the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, which could have put Karzon’s teaching license in jeopardy. The complaint basis: She gave two weeks notice, instead of 60 days.
Karzon said the school had promised not to hold her to the 60-day requirement. When asked about this via email, the Bureau of Indian Education did not offer a response.
When her temporary post at Benson ended, she learned how hard it can be to get a job with your teaching license under investigation. She went months without work.
Chemawa’s complaint against Karzon was ultimately dismissed. But a backlog at the Oregon state office that processes complaints meant the process took almost a year. By then, Karzon said, she was jobless, homeless and bankrupt.
“Retaliation is an everyday thing at Chemawa,” she said. “It’s the flavor of life there. It’s always present.”
Karzon has since left the Northwest. She now lives in Pittsburgh, where she is teaching at a charter school and getting back on her feet.
About This Series
This series is the result of almost three years of reporting by OPB reporters Rob Manning and Anthony Schick. After concerned staff members contacted OPB about troubles at the boarding school, Manning and Schick interviewed several dozen former Chemawa employees, students and parents and looked through hundreds of pages of records, including police reports, court records, depositions, academic reviews, financial documents and disciplinary reviews from Chemawa. They filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests with the Bureau of Indian Education, which oversees Chemawa. Some are still pending.
The Bureau of Indian Education allowed the current director of Indian education and the current Chemawa superintendent to speak with OPB. They declined OPB’s requests to speak with other teachers and administrators on campus.
Charles Hudson, the intergovernmental affairs director for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and Mandan-Hidatsa tribal member, reviewed the stories prior to publication with an eye toward cultural context.
For more on the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ struggles with Native education, this 2015 Politico series offers useful background.