Meet teacher Mitchell Whitehurst, the Harvey Weinstein of public education.
Meet the Portland Public Schools, the education Hollywood of enablers.
Meet the Portland teachers union, which like the Mafia in The Godfather, practices “omerta,” or silence when questioned.
And meet the children, victims of a heinous sexual predator shielded by a government school monopoly, and who deserve a school-choice exit ticket out of a protect-our-own dysfunctional system.
As the school year started in late summer, investigative reporter Bethany Barnes of The Oregonian newspaper broke the story of Whitehurst, a Portland Public Schools physical-education teacher, who had allegedly been the subject of sexual harassment complaints by young female students and adult women stretching over decades. And the complaints were not just the stray lewd comment, but shocking, Weinstein-like sex demands.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review, Barnes sifted through old records and found shocking accounts. In 2008, a former student came forward and revealed that in the early 1980s she and another female student were allegedly asked by Whitehurst to perform oral sex. Whitehurst allegedly took the girls to his apartment and said that he wanted to see them kiss. This former student eventually became a substitute teacher and reported the incident again in 2013. But Whitehurst continued to teach.
Like Weinstein, Whitehurst allegedly preyed upon those females who he put into power-imbalance situations. In 2001, he made high-school student Rose Soto his student aide, but then, according to reporter Barnes, spent the year allegedly making “unrelenting sexual advances.”
For instance, Soto said that Whitehurst pulled up to her in his sports car as she waited at a bus stop and allegedly said, “You know, Rose, I really need a jazzy girl like you in my life. Why don’t you get in?”
By 2013, reported Barnes, dozens of eighth-grade girls boycotted Whitehurst’s classes. According to interviews of the girls, they often hid in the bathroom to avoid him or wore shoes unfit for gym so they could sit out class. Said one student, “Most girls are really scared and shaking when they enter P.E.”
So, what did the Portland Public Schools do about Whitehurst? Nothing.
Just as Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sex predations were an open secret in Hollywood, one of Whitehurst’s principals, LeShawn Lee, admitted, “For the past 30 years, there have been rumblings about Coach Whitehurst and his ‘overfriendliness’ with his female students and staff.” In fact, she even worried, “I’m extremely concerned about his conduct becoming a ‘Penn State University’ scandal,” referring to the Sandusky-Paterno debauchery and debacle.
Yet, like Hollywood, the Portland Public Schools ignored the complaints of the victims. According to Barnes, “school and district officials would repeatedly protect Whitehurst and dismiss complaints from girls.”
Further, “Records and interviews show that the system protected Whitehurst, not children. District officials, including top lawyers, two human resource directors and at least three principals, downplayed complaints from students and staff as isolated instances, rumors or misunderstandings.”
Barnes noted that the Portland teachers union “has been silent about the district's botched handling of complaints about an educator accused of sexual misconduct repeatedly over many years.” She observed, “provisions in the teachers' contract designed to protect workers helped shield Whitehurst and thus have come under scrutiny.”
Whitehurst eventually surrendered his teaching license in 2016, but only, according to Barnes, "after a male colleague complained that Whitehurst mistreated him.”
It is important to emphasize that the Whitehurst horror story is not an anomaly. As the Pacific Research Institute’s new book The Corrupt Classroom points out, research shows that in 2014 alone there were 781 reported sex crimes by teachers and other public-school employees against students. That is an average of 15 student victims per week, and again, that's just the reported ones.
Parents and their children should have the right to an immediate exit ticket out of unsafe public schools, whether that ticket is a voucher, a tuition tax credit, or an education savings account. Why should parents be forced to keep their children in school systems that do not prioritize protecting them?
Lance Izumi is a Koret senior fellow in education studies and senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of the 2017 book "The Corrupt Classroom.”
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