Loophole allows districts to escape accountability for not reporting teacher misconduct
Carolyn Myers, the mother of a Portland Public Schools (PPS) student, issued a tearful plea Thursday as KATU made a shocking discovery about who is and is not required to report teacher misconduct in Oregon.
"I want justice for my child and the other children impacted by it," Myers said.
She and the grandmother of two other students are suing PPS teacher Sam Leach and the school district for a total of nearly $2.18 million after they said Leach repeatedly assaulted their children.
And they claim he never should have worked with their kids because of his record of alleged abuse.
KATU broke the story about Leach's misconduct case last May. We also discovered the school district didn't report him to the state. And we found out about a legal loophole allowing PPS and other districts to get away with it.
Oregon's Teacher Standards and Practices Commission (TSPC) is a state agency in Salem that oversees the licensing of teachers and investigates misconduct. It has the power take away a teacher's license or suspend it if they're found guilty of wrongdoing.
And certain people at school districts are required to report that alleged misconduct to the state.
Or are they?
On a boring-looking document from the state is a policy that can have a dramatic impact on your children. It says 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.
Last February, Leach made a big announcement on YouTube. The school climate coach - or disciplinarian - at Lent K-8 School in Southeast Portland said he was going on unpaid medical leave.
Two months later the TSPC suspended his teaching license for four months and put him on two years probation.
The case outraged Myers, whose son was 5 years old at the time and went to Lent. She's now suing the district for $700,000 saying Leach repeatedly assaulted her son. Last December, the grandmother of two other Lent students filed a similar lawsuit for nearly $1.48 million.
"We're just taking it day by day and just trying to get through the trauma," Myers, a PPS teacher who also serves as Lent's PTA president, told a KATU reporter Thursday.
The TSPC suspended Leach over allegations he physically, emotionally and verbally abused students at James John Elementary School in North Portland about six years ago.
PPS disciplined him over those allegations in 2014 with a final warning and a three-day, unpaid suspension, but Leach was still able to transfer to two other schools and receive substantial raises.
"It didn't have to happen," Myers explained. "It could have stopped right when the allegations were made if they had just all worked together."
The TSPC says Leach's alleged abuse at James John Elementary happened from 2012 to 2013. But the agency says it wasn't reported to the TSPC until 2015. And it wasn't a chief administrator who reported it, it was a student teacher.
A KATU reporter asked the TSPC about whether PPS would be held responsible for not reporting Leach a few times over the past year and finally got an answer Wednesday.
Trent Danowski, the TSPC's deputy director, sent KATU an email saying in part:
"In the Sam Leach case, the person(s) placed in charge of reporting to TSPC at the school district level were professionals who did not, nor were required to, hold licensure through TSPC. As these individuals were not licensed by TSPC, the agency has no authority under state law to open and/or conduct investigations on these individuals."
After making multiple inquiries a KATU reporter discovered PPS was having lawyers report alleged teacher misconduct to the TSPC.
"The people in charge of reporting cases to TSPC are part of our legal staff, and are not licensed as teachers," Harry Esteve, a PPS spokesman, said via email Thursday. "When an incident occurs involving possible employee misconduct, the chief administrator of the building immediately reports to our Dept. of Human Resources. HR and the chief administrator work collaboratively to determine whether there is reasonable belief to warrant notifying TSPC. If so, our general counsel’s office then prepares the paperwork for the TSPC notification."
In an email exchange Esteve admitted the lawyers are not chief administrators.
"I think that everybody is pointing fingers at who should have done what and not taking responsibility for what wasn't done," said Myers.
Danowski sent KATU the following statement late Thursday afternoon:
"It is not an uncommon practice for school districts in Oregon to require that their school administrators (i.e. principals, vice-principals) to report educator misconduct to the district office, and the administrators in the district office are then responsible for making the necessary reports to TSPC, as deemed necessary. In the Sam Leach case, the district administrators tasked with making reports to TSPC were not TSPC licensed educators. Since they were not TSPC licensed, TSPC could not open or conduct an investigation into potential violations of TSPC Administrative Rules. This scenario is a prime example of why TSPC is working with the Governor’s Office and state legislators to develop legislation which will close any loopholes in the current laws, and better enable TSPC to hold district leadership accountable for educator misconduct reporting."
Regarding Leach's employment with PPS, Esteve said Leach is still on medical leave and couldn't comment further on his status.
Esteve also said, "We don’t generally comment on pending litigation."
Leach did not immediately respond to an email and a voicemail requesting comment.