Oregon Allows Educators to Be Punished in Secret
Several years ago, when she was a high school teacher, a new assistant principal at Ockley Green Middle School broke a rule, partly because Portland Public Schools wasn't vigilant about communicating and enforcing the standard.
Twice, Regina Sackrider drank alcohol while on school field trips, first on an overnight stay and later when she ordered a drink with a meal. She didn't appear drunk and no one got hurt, state discipline records indicate. Both times she wasn't the only adult drinking. Portland Public Schools officials didn't feel the conduct merited action, but the state agency that licenses educators did after an investigator discovered the drinking while looking into an unrelated matter.
The ensuing investigation found her guilty of unprofessional conduct. State regulators put her on probation for two years, but also granted her a little-known mercy: Her misconduct would stay secret.
Since 2009, regulators have had the ability to punish educators in private as a way to give them a conditional second chance. This is done through an informal letter that goes only to the educator and the educator's employer.
This method keeps secret from the public not only the conduct of the educator, but the actions of the educator's bosses. For example, the secret Teacher Standards and Practices documents that The Oregonian/OregonLive obtained detail not only Sackrider's mistakes but also reference "a lack of training and policy conformation on the part of the school district."
Sackrider did not respond to The Oregonian/OregonLive's request for comment for this article.
District spokesman Harry Esteve said by law Portland Public Schools cannot talk about these confidential letters but he said the district stands by Sackrider.
The secrecy the state is allowed to afford educators may get greater scrutiny soon.
Sackrider's own district already planned to lobby for changes to Oregon teacher discipline practices. A scathing report created in response to an Oregonian/OregonLive story has become a road map for those lobbying efforts. The story detailed how the district and state regulators helped Portland educator Mitch Whitehurst evade allegations of sexual misconduct.
Portland school board member Julia Brim-Edwards told The Oregonian/OregonLive this week that lobbying may expand to push for an end to secret punishments as well. State licensing officials say the informal letters are only intended for low-level offenses. Brim-Edwards said she sees challenging secrecy around teacher discipline as directly in line with the district's commitment to champion change in response to revelations about Whitehurst.
Given that some violation must occur for a secret punishment to be meted out, "If the decision is made that significant discipline isn't warranted, parents and the school community should have the ability to see what the facts were," Brim-Edwards said. "I believe school communities are understanding."
Leaders of the agency that licenses and disciplines teachers, the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, liken the secret system to court diversion programs. But those programs operate much more openly. The fact that a person is subject to diversion, on what charges and with what conditions all are publicly disclosed.
The commission votes publicly to grant a certain number of the private probations at most of its meetings. But only the number of secret punishments, not the offense, the employer or the educator, is revealed.
"The fact is there are a lot of rules out there that it is possible for someone to violate," said Alan Contreras, who chairs the state teacher licensing agency's educator discipline committee. "So people trip over things all the time."
As for Sackrider, Esteve says Portland Public Schools weighs many factors when placing assistant principals, including prior performance, and is confident she will be an asset to her new school.
"Her deep experience and background will provide students with support and guidance to help them succeed and prepare for high school," he said.
Since 2015, 71 educators have been subject to the secret discipline, according to the agency. Trent Danowski, deputy director of the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, says the light sanction is only handed out to educators who have committed an offense for which an educator would not be at risk of having his or her license suspended or revoked.
Still, the law does not specify when the commission is allowed to use this tool with one exception; educators who have been convicted of a crime are not eligible. The type of cases which merit a secret response from the commission is something the commission decides in secret.
Nothing in the law prevents the commission from using a secret informal letter to address cases that involve sexual misconduct concerns.
While it may be hard to imagine someone would respond to allegations of sexual misconduct merely with an informal letter, that is exactly how a Portland Public Schools lawyer handled a 2001 complaint from a student who said Whitehurst told her he liked her pants because he felt it would be easy to yank down her zipper and have sex with her. The student also complained Whitehurst repeatedly asked to date her. The lawyer wrote that she found the student's statement that Whitehurst told her he wanted to take her to a hotel just as credible as his explanation that he'd only asked her for hotel recommendations. The lawyer decided, however, not to discipline Whitehurst.
Instead, she helped his principal write him a short, consequence-free memo, documents show.
That 2001 incident, unlike others involving Whitehurst, was reported to police and to the state licensing agency. At that time, agency officials did not interview the student and took no action against Whitehurst. More than a decade later, Whitehurst lost his license when a new, more rigorous investigation by the same agency found him guilty of sexual misconduct with them. By then, Whitehurst was also under scrutiny because he had been convicted for harassing a coworker.
In 2009, when the law allowing secret discipline was proposed and passed, the commission gave lawmakers examples to illustrate when a private response would be useful. Those instances included if a teacher helped a student on a test and could benefit from test administration training, if a teacher struggled with substance abuse and could benefit from treatment, or if an educator snapped at a student and could use anger management courses.
For Sackrider, the private letter meant she stayed off the state's list of problem teachers, avoided potential public scrutiny and quietly got past the ordeal. As she was coming off her probation period in 2014, she was promoted from a school-based job to a position as an equity trainer and program administrator in central office. She's worked for the district for 17 years. This school year she will go back to a school-based role, as one of three assistant principals at North Portland middle school Ockley Green. Any parent who looks her up will find her listed as an educator with a clean record.
The Oregonian/OregonLive obtained the informal letter the commission sent to Sackrider, which contains a very limited summary of the investigation. The Oregonian/OregonLive was not able to obtain a copy of the commission's investigation report or notes. Those documents would provide greater context, but are not public record under the 2009 law. Had the commission used any other method to discipline Sackrider, those materials would be available to the public upon request.
Oregon Education Association President John Larson said the option of a confidential letter prevents unnecessary litigation. A black mark on a teacher's record for a small, one-time mistake can ruin a talented educator's career, he said.
Contreras said the method helps avoid drawn-out fights with educators and reduces what can be a crushing caseload.
"We're not like the Supreme Court where we can say, 'This is trivial we're not going to hear this,'" Contreras said. "Being able to close out a lot of these low-end cases this way helps us deal with the nastier ones."
Contreras is part of a volunteer commission of 17 appointed educators and members of the public that looks at cases after agency staffers have done an investigation. Staffers give the commissioners a recommendation based on evidence they find and negotiations with the educator. The commission can then follow that recommendation or not.
Cases that the commission resolves with a private letter, Contreras said, tend to be ones where the mistake was an accident, isolated or has a fact-pattern that is "sufficiently tangled" so that it is unclear whether the educator erred because the rules and expectations weren't made clear by supervisors.
Whether a secret letter lets the district off the hook too easily in cases where its oversight was a factor, Contreras said, is a "legitimate question."
Commission Chair Heidi Sipe, superintendent of Umatilla schools, said if no children were harmed she tends to be more supportive of a lighter response. Some of the rules an educator could potentially break, for example, include quitting on short notice or not filing paperwork on time.
There is one question Sipe said she always asks herself when evaluating a case: "How would I feel if this educator were teaching my child?"