"They are texting to wear the wrong shoes."
October 24, 2017 7:58 AM   Subscribe

In September 2016, Bethany Barnes -- a new K-12 education beat reporter at The Oregonian -- published a story that revealed a long history of student complaints against Mitch Whitehurst, a veteran teacher in Portland. For the next year, 'she combed through public records and yearbooks, reached out to victims, cold-called district officials and even showed up at their homes to stitch together a decades-long timeline that tracked how the school district had repeatedly opted to protect a powerful male teacher accused of abuse at the expense of children.' Her 4,000-word investigation, Benefit of The Doubt, was published in August 2017. She’s since written a series of follow-ups that continue to prod at the district’s handling of the case.

Some links in this post contain discussions of sexual harassment and assault that some may find disturbing.

School employees are mandatory reporters. Oregon law requires them to report suspected abuse of a child to law enforcement.

Key documents that Barnes used to report "Benefit of the Doubt." [These docs include some material that may be disturbing, including personal accounts from the 8th graders in Mr. Whitehurst's PE class.

"Who wrote off Portland girls' fears about teacher as 'rumors'? No one will say, even after outrage." The Teacher's Union remains silent on Whitehurst as well.

The Oregonian: How we reported the story.
posted by zarq (28 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

The title of this post comes from one of the 8th grade students who was interviewed at Faubion High School. (pdf)

After they realized he was staring at their chests and backsides, many of the girls in Mr. Whitehurst's gym class began deliberately wearing the wrong shoes to class, so they didn't have to participate. By sitting out, they were protecting themselves from his sexual harassment.
posted by zarq at 8:02 AM on October 24, 2017 [13 favorites]

Ugh. And people WONDER why sometime women (and girls....) don't complain about abusers?

This is why. People. Don't. Listen.
posted by Paladin1138 at 8:13 AM on October 24, 2017 [36 favorites]

I appreciate all of the work that went into creating this post, but I just can’t. I can’t even think about reading one more article or interview or report regarding men in power abusing women (or girls) over whom they can exert that power, let alone actually read one. For my own mental health, I’m going to wear the wrong shoes for a while.
posted by tzikeh at 8:15 AM on October 24, 2017 [16 favorites]

In my elementary (5 to 12 yrs old) we had a gym/ french instructor who we nicknamed Bad Breath Barnes. He was repeatedly inappropriate (snapping bra straps, walking into the girls changing room unannounced). On the last day of school we toilet papered his little "le car" and jammed a banana as far up the tail pipe as possible. Some younger kids ratted us out and we were called into the principle's office to explain our actions and it all came out. That teacher did not return the next year.

Turns out this teacher had previously been teaching at the Junior High school level (12 to 15 yrs) and had been caught dating one of his students so the school board decided to move him to elementary. They must have assumed that 11 and 12 year old girls would be too young for his attention. They were wrong.
posted by Gwynarra at 8:16 AM on October 24, 2017 [47 favorites]

"Oh, well, we totally would have done stuff, but the union, you know." -principal

I am not suggesting there aren't problems with unions, but good try.
posted by jeather at 8:38 AM on October 24, 2017 [19 favorites]

Infuriating. And the part where thirty years of evidence finally came to the attention of someone who'd do something about it because of a man's complaint is just... ugh.
posted by asperity at 8:45 AM on October 24, 2017 [10 favorites]

The link under "repeatedly opted" in the post goes to a summary at Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). Many descriptions in the post were cribbed from there, too.

It may be easier to stomach than the full investigative report and accompanying articles.
posted by zarq at 8:47 AM on October 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

I usually am not very fond of the Oregonian. But this was an excellently researched and reported piece.

I also want to see every mandatory reporter who didn't in deep shit. This is beyond outrageous. I'm glad he is no longer teaching, but my god, the fact that it took a man suing the schools to get him fired pisses me off to no end.

I'm out of words, just fuming.
posted by Hactar at 8:51 AM on October 24, 2017 [10 favorites]

It is a tiny heartwarming nugget in a story of awfulness though to see that the girls were working together to protect one another despite all the adults failing.
posted by srboisvert at 8:52 AM on October 24, 2017 [35 favorites]

It wasn’t just the mandatory reporters, it was the lawyers who investigated the complaints, and the police! Everyone in a position to deliver actual consequences chose to let this man prey on girls instead.
posted by Autumnheart at 8:54 AM on October 24, 2017 [10 favorites]

There were scandals and prosecutions for a wrestling coach, a band director, and a social studies teacher in my Jr. High.

It is funny* in hindsight to think about adults making excuses and covering up for them.

People (women and men) learn to build a whisper network very early on.

*Funny like "that rotting corpse smells funny" not "funny ha ha".
posted by poe at 9:03 AM on October 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

It wasn’t just the mandatory reporters, it was the lawyers who investigated the complaints, and the police! Everyone in a position to deliver actual consequences chose to let this man prey on girls instead.

And the parents, who seem in a number of cases to have been telling the girls to just suck it up and do PE anyway because grades.
posted by Sequence at 9:05 AM on October 24, 2017 [14 favorites]

Oh, I’m sure they just blamed the girls for having a “distracting” appearance during gym class. Isn’t this why our society forces girls to lose days of their education over things like exposed bra straps, or legs that are too long for their uniform shorts? Because “distracting” others is the problem, not the targeted sexual harassment and predatory behavior they receive in the course of their compulsory attendance and compliance with authority.
posted by Autumnheart at 9:12 AM on October 24, 2017 [12 favorites]

I am not suggesting there aren't problems with unions, but good try.

I worked four summers as a temp in a union shop and was friends with a couple of the shop stewards who function like defense lawyers for the union members in conflicts with management. One of the stewards had to defend a probationary member from being fired because he was caught asleep on the job. He got him off on a technicality - the plant supervisor who caught him said "Hey you" rather "Hey [dude's name]" so it was successfully argued that non-responsiveness may have been due to the dude not realizing the supervisor was speaking to him.

I then asked the shop steward how he felt about it. He said "I fucking hate that guy. He's a dog fucker and he is going to make everybody here's lives harder when he clears his probation. But it is my job as steward to represent him and his job security is also my job security". Which is fine in a normal blue collar workplace where workers can make these calculated trade-offs.

It fails horribly where the trade-offs involve third parties. The same crap comes up with police unions, the blue line, corruption and murder. There are things just don't fit comfortably in a union versus management adversarial system.

Then you get what happened here. Management and a union collaboratively throwing defenseless third parties under the bus.
posted by srboisvert at 9:13 AM on October 24, 2017 [27 favorites]

The only reason this came to a head is because it cost the district money.
I'm sure they would have swept the coworkers complaint under the table as well if they could have gotten away with it.

At this point, filing a complaint or grievance should just be seen as checking appropriate boxes on your way to a lawsuit.
Sadly, that seems to be the only way to get any organization to listen.
posted by madajb at 9:13 AM on October 24, 2017 [6 favorites]

It fails horribly where the trade-offs involve third parties. The same crap comes up with police unions, the blue line, corruption and murder. There are things just don't fit comfortably in a union versus management adversarial system.

I'm not a lawyer. But my understanding is that unions are not required to represent all parties under any and all circumstances. They can refuse to represent a member for valid reasons.

A union has a duty of fair representation in negotiations with management. They have an obligation to make sure that management is not abusing their members. It's also their responsibility to make sure than an employer is providing a safe working environment for all their members.

But when one of their own has been accused of sexually harassing or abusing children, shouldn't the union then conduct their own investigation of whether or not the accused is guilty? And if the answer is yes and backed up with evidence, can't the union refuse to represent them in the case? I would think that any responsible union would take such charges very seriously.
posted by zarq at 9:29 AM on October 24, 2017 [6 favorites]

It looks like it was investigated a few times, and the conclusion of "nah, nothing going on here" was returned - with all the details and names removed.

I would love to see an obstruction of justice or spoliation ("loss" of evidence) case come out of this, and other situations like it. Would love some law firm hot to make a name for itself as defenders of the weak and helpless, start tracking down everyone who ignored the original claims. This would be not so much for deciding "that's all rumours" (which they're allowed to do), but for not documenting how they reached that conclusion: not noting who they contacted and when, not following standard procedures for criminal complaints, etc.

I would love a few high-profile cases focusing on punishing the people who cover up assault and harassment against women and girls, pointing out that the creeps could be dealt with if principals, cops, lawyers, and unions didn't have their backs.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 9:43 AM on October 24, 2017 [11 favorites]

The other thing, in re unions, is that you can negotiate a contract that governs when unions represent people and what things are grievable. It should be possible for the union to provide - and, importantly, for management to request/support - a contract which stipulates that sexual assault allegations will be handled though [special process TBD] that provides for fair treatment of accused union members but also recognizes that, for instance, "this guy wasn't fired, instead he was demoted to a new school where we didn't tell them anything" is not an acceptable response.

The issue isn't unions, it's that both unions and management are not interested in paying special attention to sexual assault by employees. Protecting workers is great, and there's a certain amount of "this guy is kind of awful but we have to protect him because even awful people shouldn't have their rights abused" that is necessary. But it should be perfectly possible to distinguish sexual assault from sleeping on the job, or tardiness, or being kind of rude.
posted by Frowner at 9:51 AM on October 24, 2017 [31 favorites]

This is awful, and the worst part is how true I'm sure it rings for a lot of people.

I grew up in a school district that had several schools in a city and one elementary school and high school randomly out in the countryside an hour away as some forgotten remnant of redistricting. I encountered a handful of inappropriate and abusive teachers over the years in the city. There was the elementary school French teacher who would compliment boys' physiques and "joke" about their sexual experiences (later arrested for molestation). The Grade 1-3 Music teacher who'd put on a record, assign the boys to hammer on things and play percussion, then order just the girls to dance for him, asking us to shake our bottoms and wiggle and bend over for him. There was the Grade 7 Social Studies teacher who lent me erotica and tried to get me to visit his house to see his book collection. The high school French teacher who made certain girls translate works about older men in love with young girls; all the girls just somehow knew to hang back and wait if he asked your friend to stay after class. The high school Business teacher who wouldn't let girls wear sweatshirts or coats in his class and would walk behind you while you were typing so he could look down your shirt. The high school Math teacher who would derail the class just to sit on his girl of the day's desk and flirt with her.

The good news was that after enough complaints (and in the case of the Business teacher, a class-wide walk-out of all the girls, who marched down to the VP's office to protest as a group), all of these teachers eventually resigned. That's how it was always announced: resigned. I still remember the send-off of the high school French teacher, where a cheeky student MC-ing the assembly quipped, "And farewell to Mr. [X], a dedicated French kisser--whoops, I mean French teacher."

Except, remember those two schools in the district that were an hour away out in the boonies? I transferred to that high school my senior year. Three guesses for who was waiting there for me, and the first two don't count. It turned out that every time a teacher wore out his welcome in the city due to sexual harassment allegations, the school board was just dumping them at the rural schools instead. I guess the commute was considered punishment enough, and bonus, no one's parents were lawyers at the rural schools. Win-win.
posted by haruspicina at 10:02 AM on October 24, 2017 [25 favorites]

Still not gonna read it, but I wonder what it would take, in general in this kind of situation (and I’m sure there are thousands across the country and going back decades) to bring class-action suits against the districts for loss of wages (hear me out). We have lots of proof that this kind of 1) abuse of students by teachers and then 2) basically gaslighting from other authorities that it was the girls’ faults/didn’t really happen/you’re imagining things/it wasn’t that big a deal has massive negative impacts on the harassed/abused students, in class work, in self-esteem, etc. Meaning grades suffer. Meaning college options are narrowed. Meaning career opportunities are narrowed.

I’d like to see what happens when 2,000 women sue a school district for destroying their ability to make money in a career they were kept from entering, all due the sexual predation of one teacher over the years, and the neglect/blind eye of all people in positions of authority who knew about it, from Vice-Principals to the school board.

That would be nice.
posted by tzikeh at 10:49 AM on October 24, 2017 [22 favorites]

Oh, and tack on all the therapy bills for every single complainant.
posted by tzikeh at 10:56 AM on October 24, 2017 [9 favorites]

So you say you wanna see some women sue, some unions bargain? m'k, here's a chance. Don't blink.
No Casting Couch for Low-Wage Women, But Lots of Sexual Harassment
posted by marycatherine at 11:05 AM on October 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think a "loss of wages" class action is a stretch, but "emotional distress" and cost of therapy and any other costs directly inspired by the harassment (new wardrobe, self-defense training, sometimes the cost of moving) are a much easier point to argue, and spread across a class, plus lawyer fees, those can add up.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:40 AM on October 24, 2017

Welp... I posted the link to my Facebook with a brief rundown of how the same thing happened to me back in high school, and two classmates who commented on the post alluding to stories of their own have already PM'ed me to confirm that we're talking about the same teacher who did this to us. And the last time I looked him up, he's still teaching.

For reference, I graduated from the same school district where Mary Kay LeTourneau was employed. Just a fun fact.
posted by palomar at 11:55 AM on October 24, 2017 [6 favorites]

When I was in (non-private) high school in the 80s, one of the gym teachers very suddenly disappeared midday. So did three of the cheerleaders. The school was buzzing, and when the cheerleaders showed up the next day all they said was they couldn't talk about it.

But they did talk to the other cheerleaders, and while I wasn't popular I also was nosy, overheard things , and was known to be the third least-handsy guy in my class (the 1 and 2 being as openly gay as you could be in 1980s northern NJ), so I found out the situation as a "safe guy", which was that as cheerleading coach he also demanded sexual favors from some of the cheerleaders to stay on the squad. One of them finally refused when he wanted more than oral, and she and two others went to the cops, bypassing the entire school structure. Surprisingly, the cops (one of whom had two sons playing football, and another football player was the chief's son, so you're going to expect this be all shoved under the rug) took it very seriously and got him out of school. He was tried and convicted and the school just quietly removed his photo from the yearbook before it was release that year.

There was an actual student rape case and they buried that too - two senior males walked through the back door of the girl's locker room (which led out to the athletic fields and was shared with the corridor to the boy's) and raped a sophomore girl in the shower, leaving her there and walking out the back door of the locker room. These two weren't even sports stars, they just didn't want it to become public. (The girl saw them in school the next day and ended suspended when she completely lost all control and lit into them, leaving them both with bloody scrapes and one of them with a broken wrist. Which was utterly unfair, but the administration just cared about reputation, not about safety.)

I think this informed me later when I signed up for Student Security in college, being a PP escort, and realizing earlier than many my age that 'no really does mean no, not maybe'.
posted by mephron at 12:35 PM on October 24, 2017 [16 favorites]

I was thinking about this on a long drive today. Actually thinking I was bothered that this wasn't more shocking to me. The thing is -- this man and what he did is very ordinary. He is a very ordinary monster. Because it happens all the damn time and everywhere. Seriously, I wonder if there is a female alive who does NOT have a story from her childhood of an adult male known to be... icky, untrustworthy, dangerous, etc.
posted by slipthought at 2:17 PM on October 24, 2017 [6 favorites]

two classmates who commented on the post alluding to stories of their own have already PM'ed me to confirm that we're talking about the same teacher who did this to us. And the last time I looked him up, he's still teaching

I commend the women who came forward and the girls who worked together to protect themselves and each other. I respect every survivor's right to do what he or she is able to do, at any point in recovery. Palomar, I hope the three of you can be a support to one another if any or all of you decide to document a complaint to the school board and school principal. You're lucky to have found one another.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:43 PM on October 24, 2017 [6 favorites]

Some of these districts don't have a healthy fear of lawsuits. In my district, when I was on the school board, we immediately suspended (with pay) teachers accused of sexual harassment even if it was pretty clear it was a retaliatory accusation by a student who was failing their class. There is just no upside for anyone to keeping that teacher in the classroom. Yeah, it's fuckin' shitty to be taken out of the classroom during the investigation if you're innocent, but it's a lot less shitty than spending the next two years embroiled in an ugly-ass lawsuit.

Basically for every 10,000 students (or, if you prefer, every 1500 staff) you can expect one provable criminal sexual assault or harassment of a student by a teacher every year, which ranges from rape to sexual assault to stalking girls into the bathroom for upskirt photos. Now that's only criminal assault and harassment, which is almost certainly underreported on its own, but doesn't even begin to cover regular civil-lawsuit sexual harassment of students and employes. So if you've got 10,000 students in your district and you haven't fired anybody for sexual assault yet this year? You just haven't found the creepy art teacher fucking his 16-year-old students yet. I'm sorry to break it to you in such an ugly fashion, but you gotta look harder, because he (or she! sometimes she!) is there, and you're responsible for protecting those children.

(On the flip side, if your kid goes to a high school with 2500 students and they're firing someone every four years or so for sexual assault, they're pretty on the ball! You shouldn't be mad! They're doing a pretty good job and taking reports seriously!)

Some of these school boards need remedial sessions with their liability insurers so they understand exactly how much failing to act on sexual assault accusations is going to cost them. It's a lot. Like even if they give zero shits about students, the financial costs alone should put the fear of God into them. Also the potential for being a named defendant in the student's civil lawsuit after the criminal case results in a conviction! That's a thrilling thing to have on the first page of your google results!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:01 PM on October 24, 2017 [17 favorites]

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