Report corroborates Portland students’ claims of racism, sexual harassment by staff

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Two school employees have resigned after a Portland Public Schools investigation into allegations by 60 former and current students of racism, sexual harassment, and unethical grading.

Angeliha Bou, a 2017 graduate of Deering High School, inspired dozens of people to come forward with their accounts of inappropriate treatment in city schools in a social media post last summer. 

According to a 16-page report released Feb. 3 by the School Department and its counsel from the Drummond Woodsum law firm, Bou, who is not identified in the report, posted concerns on social media about Deering High School and Portland Public Schools last June and asked others to privately message her about their experiences.

A social media post last summer by Deering High School graduate Angeliha Bou sparked more than 60 current and former Portland students to go public with claims of inappropriate treatment at city schools. The district released a report on its investigation of the allegations last week. (Courtesy photo)

Bou said via Facebook messenger on Feb. 5 she is “still absorbing all of the information laid out in the report,” which also cites a sexual harassment policy the district adopted last October after a year of working with community partners and alleged victims of harassment. 

“I would say whether I’m satisfied or not depends on what resources will be available to students to ensure that they will be heard and actions are made,” Bou said.

Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana, Assistant Director of Human Resources Richard Moore, and Ann Chapman, an investigator from Drummond Woodsum, conducted the investigation.

Botana wrote in the report that upon seeing the social media messages, he realized the first step in responding was to “fully investigate the claims.” He said he did so by requesting “a number of outside agencies and individuals” be available to take complaints and refer people making the claims to him or Drummond Woodsum.

He also enlisted Bou, who provided the district with 104 pages of screenshots detailing the claims, to encourage students to give formal statements for the investigation.

Disrespect, degradation

According to the report, the social media content included negative posts about 37 active and 18 inactive high school staff members, as well as three positive posts about active high school staff.

Two active staff members of city middle schools also were the subjects of negative posts, along with one former middle school staff member.

Issues raised in the posts, according to the report, included concerns about staff members’ interactions with students regarding their sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as sexist jokes and comments, and inappropriate interactions with female students.

The report states most of the complaints of that nature included flirting or making sexual comments toward students, “looking at students’ chests,” and physical contact that the report specifies was not sexual in nature.

There were also allegations about staff members not maintaining “appropriate professional boundaries” with students. One claimed a staff member would talk with students about their “sex lives.”

Other allegations discussed how staff members interacted with students of color, including making insensitive remarks and treating students of color less favorably than others in grading and being less lenient in discipline.

Claims were also made about administrators’ lack of responsiveness to students when concerns were raised. “Many girls” signed a petition saying a particular staff member made them feel “objectified,” according to the report, but “nothing changed.”

There were also claims alleging the school system as a whole is an “unjust institution,” with “blatant abuses of power,” “predatory behavior” and “racism.”

“While these posters were focused primarily on the experience of students of color, it was clear from a full reading of the posts that many female and LGBTQ students also felt similarly disrespected and degraded by their experiences,” the report said.

District response

Interviews of 17 people, including administrators, teachers, and coaches identified in the claims, were conducted in July, August, and September, according to the report.

Some of the concerns submitted, it noted, were about staffers no longer employed by the School Department, and some relied on second-hand information or rumors about staff members passed down by students over time.

To discipline an educator, the report said, there must be evidence of the person violating a school rule or expectation. Anonymous reports did not meet that standard, but acted “as a starting point” for discussions with the identified individuals about “issues of bias, boundaries and professionalism when dealing with students.”

In addition to the two staff members who resigned, two people received verbal warnings.

Claims that were not designated as rising to the level of possible disciplinary action were not designated for investigation. But as a result of those determinations, a staff member who was not investigated resigned and a former staff member was blocked from seeking work again in the schools.

Botana, however, met with each of the more than 30 other staff members identified in the posts to discuss the allegations.

A section of the report elaborates on the “ongoing work” the schools plan to do in response to the allegations. It acknowledges that the School Department does not have a “clear understanding of what to do” when such allegations are made, and that it historically has not done enough to bring such claims to light.

City high schools have formed committees to promote equity, and more equity training for staff is planned. More student course evaluations are also expected, along with the possible creation of a central resource to handle future concerns from students, in addition to the new sexual harassment policy. 

Botana wrote that the claims are a “stark reminder of how far” the district has to go to “become the institution (it strives) to be.”

During the Feb. 2 School Board meeting he added “we need to reflect on the fact that every interaction with a student has the potential to be the one interaction that will be remembered by that student for a lifetime.”