The Oregon Education Association, Oregon’s biggest teacher union, exists to help its members, not kids.
Pointing out the obvious in this fashion isn’t the sort of thing union leaders like. But that didn’t stop OEA President John Larson from firing a warning shot this week at lawmakers who seek to “politicize” the way school districts handle sexual abuse complaints. “Politicize,” by the way, is another way of saying, “consider legislation that would put the interests of children above those of teachers.”
Larson’s statement, made to an Oregonian reporter, is, among other things, a testament to the power of good journalism. Last year, The Oregonian published a story about Portland Public Schools’ mishandling of misconduct allegations against a teacher named Mitch Whitehurst. The story inspired the Portland school board to hire a team of investigators to find out why Whitehurst had been allowed to keep teaching for more than a decade despite complaints about his behavior.
The investigators’ May 8 report highlights a number of record-keeping and investigatory lapses that allowed Whitehurst to keep his job until 2015, when, “Through his union’s attorneys, he negotiated a resignation agreement that entitled him to early benefits and restricted the District’s ability to disclose information regarding his employment other than basic employment information (dates of employment, position, level of compensation, resignation).”
The OEA, again, exists to help its members, not children.
The report made a number of recommendations involving school district policies, training and record keeping. It also urged district officials to change certain teacher-contract provisions, including one that allows teachers to purge certain material in their personnel files after three years. This provision, the investigators noted, “cleans the slate for an educator who may, over time, exhibit a pattern of inappropriate conduct with students. Conduct that is perhaps considered by an administrator as not serious enough to rise to the level of discipline for one occurrence but is nevertheless documented should remain in the educator’s file so that if that educator engages in similar conduct in the future, a pattern can be detected and appropriate disciplinary action can be taken.”
This provision, as we noted last week, is very similar to one in Bend-La Pine’s teacher contract. Yet, despite Portland’s experience and the investigators’ recommendations, administrators here appear to be unconcerned. “We believe that the current language does not, and has not, hampered the district’s ability to handle/investigate matters of alleged employee misconduct,” Superintendent Shay Mikalson explained via email last week. Score one for the union.
If the lessons of the Mitch Whitehurst fiasco aren’t resonating beyond Portland, then “politicizing” the problem is exactly what Oregon’s taxpayers and children need. Republican Knute Buehler, who’s running against incumbent Kate Brown for the governor’s office, has been more than happy to oblige. Shortly after winning this month’s Republican primary, Buehler urged Brown to expand Monday’s special legislative session to include a number of the reforms that emerged from the Whitehurst investigation.
Buehler’s timing was bad, but his impulse was correct. Legislators in 2019 should consider Buehler’s proposals, including a prohibition on purging certain complaints from personnel files when teachers move from one school to another or from one district for another. Such purging contributed to Whitehurst’s evasion of discipline.
On Monday, as The Oregonian reported, the OEA’s Larson urged lawmakers “not to politicize” district handling of abuse claims. Rather, the paper reported, he argued that “school districts and unions should examine any policies that could be hindering investigations of sexual misconduct in a thoughtful, localized manner.” They certainly should be doing that. But leaving the investigation of misconduct complaints solely in the hands of school districts like Portland, which clearly wasn’t up to the task, isn’t a good answer. At least if you’re concerned primarily with the well-being of students.
Buehler and other elected officials should keep politicizing away.
In the meantime, members of Bend’s school board, including would-be Rep. Cheri Helt, should help local administrators and union representatives understand why the purging of personnel files isn’t such a great idea.