The Oregonian’s shocking teacher investigation

Last August, Bethany Barnes, the lone K-12 education beat reporter at The Oregonian, got a tip. New documents had been unsealed in a lawsuit against a local teacher accused of sexual misconduct. The $650,000 lawsuit alleged that Mitchell Whitehurst, a veteran teacher who was at one point among the highest paid in the city, had sexually harassed a male colleague.

Barnes, who’d only started at the newspaper a month earlier, went home to sift through dozens of pages of court documents. What she found were allegations of abuse that went far beyond what she expected. It wasn’t just that Whitehurst, as the lawsuit alleged, had approached a male colleague at work and inserted “his finger or some other unknown object in, on or around [the employee’s] anus.” Women and girls had been complaining of sexual harassment by Whitehurst since at least the early 1980s. And the district had, it seemed, done next to nothing about it.

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That evening, as Barnes sifted through the papers, she found references to complaints from a student aide who had reported harassment in 2001. There was the former student who came forward in 2008: In the early 1980s, Whitehurst had asked her and a second student to perform oral sex, taken them to his apartment, and said he wanted to see them kiss. (She reported the incident a second time five years later, in 2013, when she was working as a substitute teacher.) In 2011, someone had printed posters that called Whitehurst a “pedophile” and posted them on the campus of a public high school. And in 2013, a group of 23 eighth grade girls at Faubion School boycotted his physical education class, saying Whitehurst stared at them sexually, commented on their bodies, called them pet nameseven videotaped them. The boycott prompted the school’s principal, LaShawn Lee, to reach out to the district.

“Oh my god,” Barnes remembers thinking. “[Lee wrote] this bananas email where you have his last principal saying she’s worried there is ‘a Penn State situation.’ To invoke Penn State in writing says something. That doesn’t happen on a whim.”

In September 2016, Barnes published her first story revealing the long history of student complaints against Whitehurst. For the next year, she combed through public records and yearbooks, reached out to victims, cold-called district officials, and even showed up at their homes to stitch together a timeline that tracked how, over three decades, a school district had repeatedly opted to protect a powerful male teacher accused of abuse, at the expense of children. Her 4,000-word investigation, called Benefit of The Doubt, was published in August 2017. She’s since written a series of follow-ups that continue to prod at the district’s handling of the case.

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The school district put up a fight when Barnes tried to get access to its own Whitehurst investigatory files. A judge had placed them under a protective order as part of the earlier lawsuit. On the advice of the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, she reached out to the judge directly and asked her to lift the order. The judge said no, but not before arranging a conference call with district officials where she all but instructed them to release the files.

Instead of denying her request outright, the district stalled. Five months and a 95-page appeal letter later, Barnes secured copies of the original complaintsincluding one written by the then-17-year old Rose Soto, who would eventually agree to speak on the record about her experiences.

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“I was able to see her written complaint in her handwriting,” says Barnes. “You can hear her struggle, her voice comes through about this going on, on her struggling to say something. All of that tells you so much more about the incident.”

With the help of old school yearbooks, Barnes tracked down Soto’s mother and showed up at her house, unannounced, asking for help finding her daughter. Soto’s mother had never known about the harassment, but she agreed to help put them in touch. Months into the reporting, Barnes got an anonymous email from another victim who had read about the lawsuit against Whitehurst. She’d never reported her own harassment, but wanted Barnes to know that the other girls were telling the truth because it had happened to her, too. She didn’t want to be contacted, and signed the email “not ready, never will be.”

 

I have reported on a lot of people who have been disbelieved. You rigorously fact check them. But you listen to them.

 

“I wanted to respect her wishes but was like she needs to know. I took this chance and wrote her back. I explained I was working on a story and had no idea when it would publish, but she should see [these documents],” says Barnes. Eventually, they spoke by phone, and the woman remains anonymous in the story (she’s never shared the story of her abuse with her family). Ultimately, Barnes was able to interview five women who said they had been victimized by Whitehurst when they were his students.

She found that district employees had failed to properly vet basic facts that could have proven students’ claims of harassment or declined to discipline Whitehurst. Following a long history of a societal habit of disbelieving women and girls, the district accepted Whitehurst’s claims that the girls were simply mistaken. Principals were kept out of the loop as Whitehurst moved from school to school. The 23-student boycott of his class was dismissed as having been based on “rumors,” but Barnes says officials refused to say who made that call, and why. The district claimed to report other allegations of harassment to the state licensing agency. But they claim to have never gotten the notice.

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Working with an editor, Barnes made a list of district officials categorized by the severity with which her story would implicate them in what was tantamount to neglect. She reached out to them repeatedly, writing letters informing them that they’d be named on the front page of the newspaper, and even showing up at their homes. She tracked down Whitehurst, who was allowed to retire before the state stripped his teaching license, through a business owned by his children. His attorney refused an interview and told her never to get in touch again.

When Barnes’ story hit newsstands, Portlanders were outraged. The school board called a meeting the same day to discuss her findings. Almost immediately, the district hired a special investigative team, including former prosecutors, to look into the district’s handling of the student complaints. And they announced coming reforms to the district’s Title IX policiessolutions Barnes intends to rigorously investigate.

While solutions journalism is in vogue in the world of education reporting, Barnes is hesitant to make her own suggestions for how school districts might better handle harassment claims. It’s a sensitive topic that many industries, including film and the media itself, continue to fumble their way through.

“I think the best thing journalists can push for is care and consideration,” says Barnes. “I have reported on a lot of people who have been disbelieved. You rigorously fact check them. But you listen to them.”

Barnes’ advice for beat reporters? Don’t forget to follow-up. “Follow up is as important, and maybe more important (as the first story),” says Barnes. She has since written at least six follow-up stories that, among other things, investigate the teachers’ union rule that prevents files that document allegations of abuse from following teachers as they move between schools and looks into other instances where the district might have ignored student complaints.

“It’s still unclear why [this] happened and what’s gonna change,” she says. “They’re in the process of reforming, but what will that mean is the question hanging out there.”

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Alexandria Neason is CJR's Senior Staff Writer. Follow her on Twitter @alexandrianeas.