FHS Frontline Investigation

Members of the Frontline team meet with Principal Chris Frazier about the complaint process. PPS procedures to address complaints adhere to the teachers’ union contract. Photo by Elizabeth Kirsch.

Franklin High School’s “STRONG” acronym declares the importance of excellence as a student, staff member, community member, and school. Despite these values, acts of discrimination, however unintentional, are present and harmful. In the face of inequity, it is important to have a system in place that will create accountability; students, parents, and staff can hold people responsible by filing an official complaint. However, confusion around the steps of the complaint process and lack of faith in the system’s ability to hold people responsible create major barriers to reporting and therefore to systemic change.

Additionally, the inaccessibility of the public records once these complaints have been made are a major hindrance to investigating instances of inequity. It is FHS Frontline’s goal to clearly explain the process of filing a complaint and expose the obstacles the team has faced in accessing public records, in hopes of promoting transparency in this system and highlighting the existing flaws that need to be addressed.

Both Franklin students and staff find difficulties in knowing how to proceed when an injustice has occurred within Portland Public Schools (PPS). Often, it is not only confusion surrounding the process of filing complaints, but a distrust in the system’s ability to address concerns. According to an anonymous survey distributed to FHS students and staff, 40% of the respondents have seriously considered filing a complaint against a teacher, administrator, or staff member at Franklin, but did not do so, citing a variety of reasons.
One anonymous staff member who has worked in PPS for several years pointed out that she has “seen individuals continue to work here for years after multiple complaints are filed against them.”

She also distinguished a common fear, saying, “There have been multiple instances where I considered filing a complaint against several male staff members, but I hesitated. I think largely it was because of the power difference, because I was worried they would find out that I had complained but that nothing would come of it and I would have to continue working with them.” The staff member referenced Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that failed to prevent Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, explaining that she felt that “PPS is no different—the messaging that women get is that our word does not matter.”

A lack of trust in accountability is not the only issue surrounding the complaint process in PPS. Although anyone can file a complaint for any reason, 74.5% of Franklin staff and students surveyed acknowledged that they would not know how to file a complaint if they desired to do so. Franklin’s Principal Chris Frazier wants to eliminate the lack of clarity surrounding this process. He explains that an individual desiring to file a complaint can go to an administrator and fill out an incident report. The report is reviewed by an administrator, who then brings the complainant in so that all details of the incident are clearly understood. “Based upon the account, we then determine what are the next steps,” Frazier says. If the incident is low level and can be readily resolved, the complainant and staff member responsible are brought together for a conversation mediated by an administrator. The hope is that those involved will “walk away from the process with some type of understanding of how we will work together moving forward,” says Frazier.

If a complaint is filed against a teacher or coach, Article 25: “Complaint Procedure” of the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) Contract is followed per law. Procedures nearly identical to the contract are observed for individuals not protected by the PAT to ensure consistency. The PAT Contract also sets clear guidelines about the process of discipline against a teacher. “It includes the right to be notified of what the complaint is and to have someone there to represent you,” says David Stroup, Franklin’s PAT Lead Building Representative for Franklin. Article 23 of the PAT Contract—which addresses “Professional Educator Rights and Just Cause”—reads: “No professional educator shall be disciplined, reprimanded, or reduced in compensation without just cause.” While “just cause” is not defined within the contract, Stroup explains that the process follows the general interpretation of the term—there must be an investigation before disciplinary action can be taken against a teacher.

If a pattern of similar complaints is filed against a teacher, follow-up or disciplinary action is often taken. This involves resolutions such as a memorandum of expectations, a plan of assistance, an increase in trainings, more classroom observations, and an increase in scrutiny of staff-to-staff and student-to-staff relations. These actions are “all specific to the individual and the complaint,” says Frazier, and “oftentimes, repeated consequences could lead to dismissal.” When the complaint involves a more serious issue not necessarily warranting dismissal, the “next steps” often involve a process that the complainant is unlikely to see. Factors such as Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) laws and confidentiality policies bar public involvement in the disciplinary process, often creating an illusion that no action has been taken when the issue present has been addressed.
However, building administrators, who are in charge of managing those under a PAT Contract on a day-to-day basis, are not responsible for the hiring or firing of employees. That privilege falls upon district officials. This can create a dysfunctional form of communication between the district and school-specific administration, as those not working in the school can be disconnected from the effects of problems and unable to appropriately address them.

Initially, teachers are evaluated yearly to ensure that they are adequately doing their jobs. Because PPS teachers gain tenure—a permanent employment—after three years, and are only officially evaluated every other year following this advancement, dismissal is a much more difficult process. These rare evaluations cause an unintentional pitfall in the system: if problematic teachers with tenure are not being reported because a fear of inaction is present, or there is a lack of understanding of the process, then their actions are likely to go unnoticed by PPS administration.

Additionally, when there is a problem, students often feel an obligation to protect teachers if they believe their actions were unintentionally harmful, leaving the issue unreported. Frazier describes this phenomenon as “intent versus impact;” anyone can inflict microaggressions upon students or staff members without intending for their actions to cause harm. “Our students are in some cases suffering as a result of someone that has a well-intentioned practice,” Frazier says. One student who wishes to remain anonymous described an incident in which his teacher asked him to move to make space for other students. “I was moving, and he was like ‘move ese, move’ and then he was like ‘that was my bad Latino accent,’ and we were just all like ‘what the…’” says the student. No complaint was filed in this incident. “If he had done it again I would’ve said something,” the student explains. “[But] I can tell he likes his job… He’s a cool dude. I don’t think he means it in that way.” Although such an event would not result in the dismissal of the teacher in question, a complaint could lead to some form of disciplinary action or at least in the incident being addressed, enforcing a system of accountability.

Frazier hopes that staff and students desiring to bring complaints do what is often seen as counterintuitive: “trusting the process.” While citing the confidential nature of the process, Frazier acknowledges, “that’s something we as an administration we need to do a better job of: helping students to better understand their rights.” An uptick of discussions surrounding the complaint system and student rights is expected at future class meetings. Although the function of the process is not ideal for many, the administration can only resolve conflict if they are aware that the issue exists.

However, the process of submitting complaints isn’t the only issue with the system; accessing them is often the most challenging part. The Public Records Office of PPS is designed to “assure the appropriate tracking and storage of records created and maintained by the Portland Public School District and provide reference and retrieval services to district schools/offices as well as to the general public.” The Public Records Officer, Ryan Vandehey, is in charge of managing these requests. Any individual is able to request a public record, and according to the Public Records Request homepage, “Portland Public Schools is committed to its obligation to make records available to the public, as required by state law.” The state law in question, Oregon Revised Statute (ORS) 192, details clearly the process of requests and the release of records.

In relation to another investigation, the FHS Frontline team placed a request for records on a current PPS employee. The process took nearly two months, and there was limited communication between Vandehey and the requestees during this time. At the end of the request process, Vandehey informed the Frontline team that no records existed on said employee. After a follow up—the Frontline was aware that this was untrue—the team was informed that records did in fact exist, but could not be released; no reason for exemption was cited. As per ORS 192, Frontline appealed to the District Attorney of Multnomah County, Rod Underhill, to gain access to the records, citing the PPS Public Records Office’s failure to follow PPS board policies and state law. The appellate request for the records was denied by the DA on November 26 of 2018. In addition to the reasons for denial was a note about the PPS board’s lack of authority to enforce legal processes and PPS board policy, an issue at hand in the initial appeal. Underhill reasoned that the DA’s Office is “not empowered to enforce them [PPS board policies] and express no opinion on whether or not PPS has complied with its own policies.” In other words, even though PPS technically has a new public records policy as of 2017, there is no legal accountability to ensure that it is followed. Furthermore, Underhill stated that a current open personnel file overrode all requests for records under ORS 192.345(12), regardless of whether or not the requested records are active. Underhill did acknowledge that “the posture of this particular investigation is somewhat unusual” and “an agency ‘may not indefinitely leave open an investigation in an attempt to thwart the purposes underlying the Oregon Public Records Law,’” as per Petition of van der Voo. The Office also noted that “the length of time that an investigation takes to conclude can make a compelling case that the public interest requires disclosure,” but “neither of these concerns are, yet, evident in this case.”

The amount of exemptions allowed for a release of records, laid out in ORS 192, PPS’ Administrative Directive 2.50.012-AD, and Board Policy 2.50.010-P, are lengthy. This, along with the PAT’s strong defense of teachers both in the classroom and in the courtroom, assures that most staff actively employed by PPS will never have their complaints made available to the public. Multiple exemptions laid out in state law make sweeping legal loopholes. For example, per ORS 192.355(2)(a), “The party seeking disclosure shall have the burden of showing that public disclosure would not constitute an unreasonable invasion of privacy.” Because “unreasonable” is undefined, release of records is completely at the discretion of the district. Additionally, per ORS 192.355(4), when “public interest would suffer by the disclosure [of records]” and when “information [is] submitted to a public body in confidence… [and] should reasonably be considered confidential,” public records are always exempt from disclosure. These subjective terms allow for many, if not most, records to never reach the public eye.

Although the process of obtaining records is extraneous and filled with roadblocks, it should not discourage those desiring to file a complaint from doing so. “I would hope that we get to a place as a school where there is a mutual relationship between students and staff,” Frazier says, reasserting that concerns must be reported for this relationship to exist. The responsibility is not on the student to protect a teacher; a system of accountability that informs people of the harmful impacts of their actions—regardless of good intent—is vital. Additionally, whether or not they are disclosed to the public, disciplinary actions are taken to address complaints. Through filing complaints, and continuing to pursue the accessibility of reports that have been made, Franklin’s administration and FHS Frontline can be made aware of issues that exist, and address them in hopes of creating a truly “STRONG” community.

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