Emily White quietly celebrated. It was September 1982, one of her first days at The Catlin Gabel School, as she recalls, and the instructor had selected her poem to read aloud to the class.

She reddened when her teacher, Sam Crawley, flashed her a smile and gave her a thumbs-up.

Over the months, they grew close, she said. She was a special talent, she remembered Crawley telling her. She was thrilled at the attention. After school, he would drive them to downtown Portland, she said. They talked about poetry and literature at Metro on Broadway, she remembered, and under the table, he allegedly put his hand on her thigh.

One night as he dropped her off at her house, she alleged, he leaned over and kissed her on the lips.

White was 17. Crawley was 45. She was a junior in high school, he a husband and father.

“He picked me out of the crowd,” White recalls. “I enjoyed being the chosen.”

But apparently there were other chosen ones. Like Heather Angell. She was a year ahead of White, though the same age. She too was a gifted writer. Crawley charmed her with many of the same lines about her unlimited potential, she said.

He bought her a book of poetry, she said, with the inscription: “For my lover, on her birthday.” They were having sex regularly when Angell was a student in his classroom, she said.

Thirty-five years later, Catlin is in crisis. The exclusive private school has been rocked by revelations that some of its most prominent teachers sexually and physically abused students. A report commissioned by Catlin and released in December included Crawley as one of at least nine staffers alleged to have sexually abused or harassed students. Some now blame the very culture that made Catlin successful at turning out top students in academics.

Sex abuse scandals are nothing new at private schools. Choate, Horace Mann and other famous institutions have also employed instructors who groped, molested or raped children.

What sets Catlin apart is the number of alleged abusers and how long it went on. Complaints of serious sex abuse date back to the 1970s. The most recent termination of a Catlin staffer for harassment came in 2016.

The number of victims during those five decades is impossible to calculate. The school’s investigator interviewed those students who came forward. She did not seek out new cases.

Now, former students are coming forward to tell their stories, many for the first time. The Oregonian interviewed more than 15 former students, who now range in age from 21 to 61. Some still seethe with anger. Others are ashamed. Some have had to deal with lifelong intimacy and trust issues.

The bad actors found easy pickings at Catlin. School administrators failed to heed multiple warnings over the years that teachers were abusing children. A handful of students, some barely out of elementary school, went to principals and teachers they trusted. Some now feel they were ignored.

The victims are convinced Catlin’s own culture contributed to the problem. In pursuit of high academic achievement, the school encouraged an unusual level of intimacy between teacher and student. In certain cases, that intimacy went horribly wrong.

“We were set up to be very close with your teachers,” said Nadya Okamoto, a 2016 graduate. “You called your teachers by their first name. You met every day with your adviser, who sort of becomes your personal guardian. It can be really positive. But what makes Catlin special also created their biggest risk.”

Heather Angell remembers having a friend over to spend the night in her senior year. She blurted out her closely held secret — she was having “an affair” with Crawley. Her friend was unfazed and told Heather that she was having an affair with a different Catlin teacher.

In the 1970s and ’80s, romantic relationships between teachers and students or former students were common enough that they were barely hidden. Over the years, the former students recalled, at least three Catlin staffers married former students shortly after they graduated.

In response, at the beginning of the current school year the Catlin board of trustees approved a new policy that prolonged by three years the prohibition on sexual relationships between Catlin staffers and students. Catlin employees will have to wait until a former student is 21, instead of 18, before they can get involved.

Some of the alleged perpetrators are now dead. Others could not be found or refused to comment. Most major elements of the victims’ accounts were echoed in the details in the Catlin report or corroborated by other sources. With one exception, all of the alleged abusers named in this story are mentioned in the Catlin report.

Crawley could not be reached for comment. When questioned by the investigator, he denied ever having any kind of sexual relationship with a student.

The dark legacy of Catlin Gabel may never have come to light but for the #MeToo movement. Many of the women interviewed credited the gender equity movement for prompting them fundamentally reconsider their Catlin experience.

Former students began writing about their experiences on social media. The first social media posts came as early as the fall of 2017. More posts came in 2018. Catlin administrators knew they had a problem. Tim Bazemore, Catlin head-of-school, and the school’s board of trustees hired the investigator in October to determine the extent of the problem.

The investigative report, penned by Portland lawyer Lori Watson, is detailed. It names Crawley and five other former instructors as alleged sex abusers. The resulting publicity has led to a flood of new complaints. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office has opened a criminal investigation.

Some former students have hired attorneys and are reviewing their options. Though Catlin has significant resources, it now could face daunting legal challenges.

Natalie Fielland and Liza Carlson

The alleged abusers were some of Catlin’s best-known and most popular teachers. Chief among them was Richardson “Dick” Shoemaker. “Shoe,” as he was popularly known, was an institution, teaching sixth grade math, coaching girls soccer and helping to lead Catlin’s annual go-kart competition. He even drove a Catlin school bus when needed.

But many of his young female charges learned to stay clear. Behind the smiling grandfather shtick, Shoemaker was, they claim, a groper with a taste for prepubescent girls.

Three former female students told The Oregonian how Shoemaker would allegedly pull a girl onto his lap, where he could rub a breast, slip his hand under a blouse or pat a girl’s backside. The Catlin report contained similar allegations.

Natalie Fielland was 12 years old when she experienced it. She and a handful of other students were gathered around the teacher’s desk after class. Natalie was wearing a shirt that bore a likeness of the Catlin Gabel boat, a vessel that now sits grounded on the school’s playground.

Shoemaker reached toward Fielland and pointed to the bow of the boat. “There used to be a window right there,” he said. At that moment, Fielland said, he allegedly touched her breast.

It was no accident, Fielland said. “I just started backing away from the desk. We were so young, we weren’t sure what was appropriate and what wasn’t. But I knew enough to steer clear of him after that.”

Fielland said nothing, however. Who was she to question Shoemaker? “He was involved in everything,” she said. “He was sort of a hero.”

Shoemaker kept close track of his students’ birthdays, the girls said. Birthday paddling was a tradition in his classroom. It was also not optional. As Carlson remembers it, he would have the student lie face down across his lap while he allegedly administered the spanking by hand.

Liza Carlson remembers Shoemaker had a characteristic move — he would wrap his arm around a girl’s shoulders from behind and then let his hand slide down her front. “That was a daily move for any female student that had breasts,” she said.

Carlson was alone in the ceramics building when she looked up and saw Shoemaker entering the room. Carlson, now 40, alleges that Shoemaker backed her up against a table, grabbed her chin and kissed her on the lips.

She later told a group of friends about it. They were outraged and scared for the younger sisters who might face similar treatment. They said they went to the teachers and administrators, including Roy Parker, then principal of the middle school.

Nothing happened.

“I’m not sure what he did, but I know what he didn’t do,” said Libby Kottkamp, one of Carlson’s supporters. “He didn’t fire Shoe; he let Shoe teach for the better part of another decade. I know for a fact he abused girls in the classes behind us.”

Parker said he has no memory of any complaints against Shoemaker or qualms about Catlin. “He was revered,” Parker said of Shoemaker. “Catlin was and is considered a model for private education across the country.”

The investigator put Shoemaker at the top of her list of Catlin abusers in her report.

Nadya Okamoto

Okamoto started at Catlin as a ninth grader in 2012. She was a so-called “scholarship kid,” meaning she needed financial help to pay Catlin’s hefty tuition ($34,000 a year currently).

“It was my first time ever in private school,” she said. “I met friends who had planes and drivers, multiple homes.”

For Okamoto, on the other hand, every dollar counted, which led to her bus fare crusade. Despite its considerable wealth, Catlin Gabel didn’t offer to defray transit costs for its students who relied on it. She decided it was time to change that.

She shared her plan with her adviser, Glenn Burnett. He enthusiastically joined her campaign and even volunteered to cover her bus fare himself until the school agreed to pick up the tab.

For a teen who had spent much of her life in public school, Catlin was a wrenching transition. There weren’t traditional grades. There was no dress code. Teachers were known strictly by their first names.

The student body included students from the moneyed families of Portland — sons and daughters of Nike executives and Intel leaders, the big-name families of the West Hills. That contributed to what Okamoto called Catlin’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture.

“People are more reluctant to report because they may have a name to protect,” she said.

Okamoto undertook a breakneck schedule of sports, mock trial and other clubs. She said she convinced the school to form its first cheer team, which she was part of. Burnett cheered her on.

His relationship with Okamoto grew closer, she said. He bought Christmas gifts for the entire Okamoto family, she recalled, and frequently sent her notes. After his mother died, Burnett gave much of her jewelry to Okamoto and her family, she said.

“He would say things like, ‘You’re the girlfriend I never had. I can’t stop thinking about you. You’re beautiful. I’ve never met a woman like you. I’ve never dated a woman like you,’” she said.

In her senior year, as she recalls, he sent her a pair of underwear. “It was lacy women’s underwear,” she recalls.

Okamoto never went to her mother or to Catlin Gabel administrators. She said she was nervous it would be dismissed or she wouldn’t be believed. She also felt that Burnett, for all his weirdness, had been genuinely devoted and helpful to her.

But then, according to Okamoto, her mother discovered Burnett’s letters and gifts in Nadya’s bedroom after she graduated. Shortly thereafter, Burnett was fired.

Burnett tells a much different story. “I never had or wanted a relationship with (Nadya) other than as a family friend,” he said in an email exchange.

Okamoto required a lot of time and attention, he added. “After four years, I was treating (Nadya) more like a stepdaughter than a student. That was my mistake. I should not have gotten that involved in her life.”

He said he doesn’t recall whether he bought her underwear. “I bought her a lot of clothing over the three years,” he said. “I know that I did not buy her anything resembling lingerie.”

Burnett said it is absurd to lump him in with the other abuse cases detailed in the report. They never had sex. On that both Okamoto and Burnett agree. “I never physically touched her and I was not trying to groom her,” he said.

“I worked at Catlin for 20 years,” he said. “This was the only incident of questionable behavior. I don’t believe that (Nadya) was a ‘victim,’ but I know that I don’t get to decide that and that she has a right to claim that she was. Catlin fired me to protect themselves, I get that.”

Okamoto is now a junior at Harvard. She feels bad about the Burnett incident. “It’s hard for me, I feel a lot of guilt. I still feel like I owe a lot of my success to Glenn. I think that’s why he has so much control over me.”

Burnett is still in the education field. He currently works in Omak, Washington, in a satellite campus of Wenatchee Valley College. He left a message on his LinkedIn page saying due to a budget shortfall, he will be laid off later this month.

Emily White and Heather Angell

After graduating from Catlin, both White and Angell moved on to college.

Crawley followed, they said. He went to Oberlin College in Ohio to visit Angell and to Yonkers, New York, where White had enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College.

“We walked around the campus; we had sex in my dorm room,” Angell said. “He told me endlessly how much he was in love with me.”

Angell finally ended it. “I needed the time and space to just be a college student,” she said.

Angell wasn’t proud of the relationship. She knew he was married with kids. “I was aware of the inappropriateness of these relationships,” she said. “But I thought ours was a genuine thing. I told myself that I was different, that we were special.”

It was wishful thinking. If the report is accurate, Crawley had a long trail of teen lovers. The report alleges Crawley “touched, fondled and had sexual intercourse with a 12th-grade student and engaged in inappropriate sexual relationships with multiple other students.”

Those “other students” did not include Angell or White. Neither talked to the investigator before the report was published.

Angell was stunned. “The report cut me to the quick,” she said. “I had no idea I was part of a pattern.”

For White, she said the campus meeting marked the first time she and Crawley allegedly had sex. It was also the beginning of the end of their relationship. She knew their days were numbered the evening she heard Crawley and his 40-year-old pals talking about how unattractive it was when women developed age lines around their mouths.

She concentrated on writing. In 1992, she received the prestigious Wallace Stegner Fellowship to study writing at Stanford.

White wrote two books. She worked as a reporter for L.A. Weekly.

She now lives in Seattle, unmarried, with a 15-year-old daughter. “I’m single, divorced and I don’t trust men as far as I can throw them,” she said. “I’ve been in therapy. So yeah, there have been consequences.”

After he left Catlin in the 1980s, Crawley became a stockbroker. He would now be in his 70s.

Angell credits current Catlin leadership for not trying to evade responsibility. “I think they’re taking steps in the right direction,” she said. “The transparency with which they’re presented the report, this fund for paying for counseling, they’re being very proactive.”

But she and White also feel that the Catlin culture contributed to the wave of sexual abuse.

“You look at the ingredients of really powerful education — one of them is a strong relationship with a teacher,” Angell said. “It makes the student feel special. That can be a powerful force for good. But when that line gets crossed, it’s pretty destructive.”

White echoes those sentiments. “The teachers were your friends,” she said. “But some of the male teachers took it too far. It was like a snake came into the garden.”

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.