Dozens of Oregon teachers disciplined in 2014 for behaving badly

PORTLAND, Ore. -- In the past year alone, nearly five-dozen Oregon teachers have been reprimanded, put on probation, suspended or had their licenses taken away over a wide spectrum of offenses.

Remember the story about a teacher at Stevenson High School who was caught on video telling kids to pelt a student with Koosh balls for chewing gum in class? The Stevenson-Carson School District concluded that science teacher Kemberly Patteson used poor judgment when she used the "Wheel of Misfortune" to discipline students, which violated the district's anti-bullying policy.

If you thought that was bad, the On Your Side Investigators uncovered dozens of cases where educators were busted for crossing boundaries with students.

Offenses by Oregon teachers included allegations of pushing a student up against a wall, helping a student cheat, hurling abusive and racist comments at ethnic students, shaming a student by forcing them to do push-ups, to sexual abuse.

"The commission is horrified every time they see these cases," Vickie Chamberlain said, executive director of the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission.

The TSPC is the agency that oversees all Oregon teachers' licenses, enforces professional standards of conduct, and investigates complaints. Chamberlain estimated the commission investigates up to 300 complaints a year.

"The way our mechanism works and the way our laws works is, if anybody turns in any complaint or anything about an educator, we are required by law to investigate," Chamberlain explained.

The On Your Side Investigators found most of these cases involve inappropriate contact, drugs, alcohol, and anger management.

In fact, teachers flying off the handle comes up a lot.

Take Daniel Williamson, a retired teacher substituting at Milwaukie High School from which he'd retired. Reports state he shamed a "vulgar, profane, and disrespectful" student in front of the whole class. Discipline documents state Williamson told the student he "didn't get enough attention from his mommy and daddy. Then he dared the kid to hit him, saying "You can take three free shots at me, but after that I think the law would say that I have a right to defend myself."

"He wanted to provoke the kid so he could say he, in self-defense, could do something back. It was pretty calculated and pretty inappropriate," Chamberlain told KATU.

Williamson was later reprimanded by the TSPC and put on probation for one year. The On Your Side Investigators checked into his employment and found he's no longer teaching in Oregon.

Then there's the case of PE teacher, Rochelle Buhl, who taught at Harvey Scott School in the Portland Public School district. Discipline reports show she was busted for - among other things - using "unreasonable physical force" against students. In one incident, she grabbed a kid in elementary school "by the back of the neck and pushed him up against the wall." She then told the student he was a 'trouble maker" and that "none of the teachers liked him."

The reason for this? The little kid was horsing around.

"It appears quite possible that she was doing things like this for years and it just slipped by," Chamberlain said.

After an investigation, documents state, Buhl "entered into a resignation agreement" with PPS, effectively retiring. This year, TSPC ruled to revoke Buhl's right to re-apply for her license.

When it comes to inappropriate contact with students, the stories are shocking. They include everything from teachers giving gifts to students, to sending explicit text messages, to outright sexual abuse.

Crater High School science teacher Sarah Swanson-Suhrstedt made headlines in 2012 when records show she had sex with an 18-year-old male student in February 2012. She then gossiped about the sex to two other students, documents show, who she also sent sexually explicit text messages to. In fact, she revealed to one student that "she might be pregnant" and "experiencing morning sickness."

According to documents, the Central Point School district placed Swanson-Suhrstedt, then 28, on administrative leave, but she declined to participate in the district's investigation. Swanson-Suhrstedt submitted a letter of resignation April 10, 2012 in lieu of being fired.

Central Point police arrested Swanson-Suhrstedt June 15, 2012, on one count of first-degree official misconduct, a charge that applies when a public servant knowingly performs an act constituting an unauthorized exercise of official duties with the intent to obtain a benefit.

By 2013, Swanson-Suhrstedt's license had expired. In January 2014, the TSPC ruled to revoke Swanson-Suhrstedt's right to re-apply for a license.

However, the On Your Side Investigators discovered less egregious cases are often hidden from the headlines.

For instance, records show substitute teacher Melinda Sarbeck was arrested 14 times dating back to when Jimmy carter was President. Her laundry list of convictions includes multiple thefts, DUII's, possession of a controlled substance, and probation violations. Records also show she had a history of drug and alcohol abuse.

Chamberlain said Sarbeck substituted in several districts during the past 20 years but how was she allowed to teach at all?

The On Your Side Investigators learned Sarbeck had two arrests in the early 1980's which she ultimately was able to have dismissed. In 1994, she was arrested but the case was dismissed.

Chamberlain said "In 1995, my predecessor approved her application for a substitute teaching license, because the 1994 arrest was dismissed (no conviction)."

Based on searches, there were no arrests between1994 and 2006.

At the time of her arrest in 2006, Sarbeck held a Basic Teaching License, which was valid until 2008. During her re-application with the TSPC in 2008, Sarbeck admitted to her 2006 arrest, which was dismissed. Chamberlain said her application for a substitute teaching license was approved in 2008.

Between the years 2008 and 2011, Sarbeck was arrested nine times. According to records, Sarbeck let her license expire in 2011.

Chamberlain said it wasn't until 2012, when Sarbeck applied to reinstate her substitute teaching license that the TSPC launched an investigation. The commission completed its investigation in early 2013 and revoked her right to apply for a license in March 2014.

Why revoke a right to re-apply?

"Sometimes the educator engages in misconduct (outside the classroom) after their license has expired," Chamberlain said. "We still want to move forward with discipline to protect the public and children. Especially since the educator may move to another state thinking that the 'new' state might not have learned of certain misconduct. Or, the educator may decide to reapply for their license after a period of time. In these cases, we want the past misconduct documented."

Unless a parent makes a complaint about the teacher, they may be in the dark about the bad apples and their conduct in the classroom. The commission posts the discipline online but it can sometimes take years to close a case. Chamberlain said the average length of an investigation is 12 to 15 months.

"It is the administrative hearing part that can take up to 18 months after the investigation has been finished," Chamberlain added. "It is very similar to getting in line in the district court."

When asked what TSPC was doing to clamp down on bad behavior Chamberlain responded, "I don't know that we can clamp down on it. You can't predict it."

It's why the TSPC works hard on the front end to vet teachers before they're hired: running them through a criminal background check, a national clearinghouse, and Google.

The commission also sends out newsletters to, among other things, remind teachers how to behave. However, includes one section titled "Educator Sanctions" and offers shockingly obvious tips including "Do not lie," "Do not cheat," "Do not touch students (at all)."

Ultimately, it's a jury of their peers who decides a teacher's fate. A 17-member commission including teachers, administrators, and a couple members of the public reviews every complaint sand votes on the punishment.

"If there is anything there, that can be supported by evidence, the commission will take action," Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain also pointed out, the number of disciplined teachers is just a fraction - .003 percent according to TSPC numbers - of the 32,000 licensed teachers in Oregon.

If you'd like to see if your child's teacher was disciplined, click on the links below:

Teacher Standards and Practices 2014 Discipline list: http://www.tspc.state.or.us/discipline_list.asp?year=2014

Teacher Standards and Practices Master Discipline list: http://www.tspc.state.or.us/discipline_list.asp?year=9999