Elementary teacher disciplined for alleged abuse receives multiple raises, transfers

Oregon's Teacher Standards and Practices Commission (TSPC) says teacher Sam Leach was disciplined over alleged physical, verbal and mental abuse of students at James John Elementary School in Portland during the 2012-2013 school year.

Parents at a Southeast Portland school said they're infuriated after KATU discovered a teacher disciplined for alleged abuse was repeatedly transferred and given raises.

"I don't understand how (Portland Public Schools) thought it was acceptable that somebody who had been accused of being verbally and emotionally and physically abusive to children would be OK in a position like that," Katherine Rodela, the mother of a student at Lent K-8 School on Southeast 97th Avenue, told KATU on Wednesday.

State authorities say the alleged abuse of kindergartners and third graders at an elementary school in North Portland was not criminal and happened around five years ago. But the teacher, Sam Leach, continued to transfer to different schools and work with children until this year.

It took more than a year for the case to even be reported to the state, according to Oregon's Teacher Standards and Practices Commission (TSPC), which oversees the licensing of teachers and investigates misconduct.

The agency said the alleged abuse happened in 2012 and 2013 and that Portland Public Schools took disciplinary action of its own in 2014. But the TSPC said the first person to report the case to their agency was a teacher in 2015 and not school administrators.

The TSPC then investigated and issued a stipulated final order on April 6 of this year saying the commission found Leach's conduct constituted gross neglect of duty. The order also suspended Leach's teaching license for four months and put him on two years probation.

State law requires a chief school administrator to report any person to the TSPC's executive director within 30 days who may have committed gross neglect of duty. A TSPC spokesman told KATU he's legally barred from saying whether the agency is investigating Portland Public Schools' actions in this case.

Amy Hoffmann, president of the PTA at Lent K-8, said she and other parents were not informed about Leach's past problems when he was hired by the school two years ago.

Hoffmann and Rodela told KATU they're sending a letter to district administrators from parents. In it they demand answers about the hiring of Leach and request a meeting with board members and the superintendent.

"We had no idea this was happening!" Rodela explained.

"It's mind-blowing and it's heartbreaking and it's really disheartening for parents," said Hoffmann.

During the 2012-2013 school year the TSPC says Leach taught third grade at James John Elementary School in North Portland.

The agency's stipulated final order says a student teacher reported Leach was verbally, mentally and physically abusing students "stating Leach would yell, belittle, insult and isolate children."

The student teacher reportedly said, "Leach had told him, 'The key to establishing control in the classroom was to make a child cry in the first week of school,' which (he) stated Leach quickly accomplished."

He also said Leach would forcibly grab students by the shoulders, move them around and push them down into chairs.

"(The student teacher) described the children," the report says, "as wincing in pain when Leach grabbed them."

The next school year, in the fall of 2013, the TSPC says Leach was re-assigned to a kindergarten classroom at his request.

Soon after, the agency says multiple staff complaints were filed about his inappropriate interactions with students.

Investigators say, "Students reported that Leach grabbed students forcibly, pushed students against lockers, or into chairs, yelled at students, made students cry, shook students, left students unattended in the hallway for time outs, and shamed students as punishment."

The TSPC says staff members reported similar conduct and in January of 2014 investigators say Leach admitted to violating district policies. They say Leach was given a final warning and a three-day unpaid suspension.

The next school year, the TSPC says Leach was voluntarily reassigned to Kelly Elementary School in Southeast Portland. He worked there as a student management specialist until 2016.

In the fall of that year, he transferred again to a new job at Lent K-8 as a school climate coach, which Hoffmann described as a disciplinary position.

"It's when a student is acting out in class and a teacher is unable to handle the situation they call Mr. Leach," she explained. "He should never have been put in (that) position, particularly in a school where a lot of our kids have experienced trauma."

Through a public records request KATU discovered Leach's yearly salary in 2012, the year the alleged abuse began, was $68,226. This year, the district says it was $82,889, a more than 21 percent increase.

Harry Esteve, a Portland Public Schools spokesman, said, "His salary increases are the result of moving up the pay scale that is in the Portland Association of Teachers' labor contract."

After a KATU reporter started asking questions about the abuse case last month, Esteve said the district emailed parents, telling them Leach went on a requested unpaid leave of absence in February and that he "is not assigned to return to Lent school this year or in the future."

"We take issues of student safety and teacher conduct very seriously, and the district is reviewing the implications of the suspension," Esteve said via email.

"My sense was they didn't want us to find out about this," said Rodela. "I don't think we're seeing true leadership from the district here. I think what we're seeing is damage control."

In its stipulated final order the TSPC says, "Leach has had no complaints or concerns since his January 2014 discipline."

Leach did not immediately respond to a voicemail, multiple emails and Facebook messages a KATU reporter sent on Wednesday.

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