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Teachers alleged favoritism, racist language at Vancouver high school where principal remains on lea

The sign outside Evergreen Public Schools pictured July 29, 2020. The school was one of many to announce plans to start fall with online-only classes.
The sign outside Evergreen Public Schools pictured July 29, 2020. The school was one of many to announce plans to start fall with online-only classes.

Newly released records show that several teachers’ complaints of favoritism and racism at Mountain View High School sparked a principal’s lengthy paid leave.

Investigators found little evidence to support harassment and bullying claims by four teachers, but did recommend Evergreen Public Schools “educate” staff about racist language and address an “undeniable perception” of favoritism at Mountain View.

Those are the main conclusions in a 135-page investigative report obtained by OPB. The report outlines why principal Matt Johnson has been on paid leave since March 16. Johnson has collected nearly $20,000 in taxpayer-funded salary in the process. The district has said little publicly.

Johnson briefly returned to work April 21, but soon landed back on leave after he cast doubt on the teachers’ complaints. In a staff-wide email, he said the “complaints in the investigation were not supported by credible evidence.”

The district quickly placed him back on administrative leave, where he remains.

“Unfortunately, that statement is inaccurate as the investigation did identify some concerns that Matt and the leadership need to address,” wrote Bill Oman, senior director of secondary education, the following day.

The investigation, conducted by Seattle-based law firm Helsell Fetterman, drew a handful of conclusions about the teachers’ allegations. Many conclusions either stated there was insufficient evidence or sided with supervisors.

In some cases, teachers alleged they were pigeonholed into teaching difficult classes. Some said they were ignored by supervisors — such as being intentionally and repeatedly left off staff-wide emails or called the wrong names repeatedly. Others said they were bullied or disrespected, such as being screamed at by supervisors in front of students.

Many of the allegations involving interpersonal conflict lacked evidence, investigators said. The firm interviewed the four Mountain View teachers who filed complaints, one other teacher and five supervisors, according to the report. Supervisors also provided emails in their defense.

In two cases, investigators recommended changes at Mountain View.

The firm recommended the district address the “undeniable perception” of favoritism. Investigators noted many believe Johnson gave preferential treatment to certain teachers, the school band, coaches and particularly to one associate principal.

An open-door policy, investigators said, concerned some administrators because “teachers go directly to him to get approval for requests.”

Investigators also said the district should “educate” staff about racist language. Teachers complained about multiple instances of faculty using the n-word and facing few repercussions.

In April, OPB reported that allegations of soft consequences for racism factored into Johnson’s leave. Parents and sources at Mountain View highlighted a gym teacher who used the n-word at a student while other students watched, yet faced few repercussions.

The incident factored into three out of four teachers’ complaints.

Disciplinary records confirm that multiple witnesses saw the teacher, Tim Buswell, use the slur repeatedly in front of his sixth period gym class on Feb. 6, 2020. The district punished Buswell by requiring him to talk with “those affected” and to take an online class on diversity, the records show.

Buswell eventually transferred to another school, according to the investigation, though it’s unclear how long after the 2020 incident that switch occurred. He notified the district March 2 that he would retire in June. He grosses about $8,442 per month, district officials said.

When reached by phone, Buswell declined to comment for this article.

In their complaint, one teacher also alleged that they reported the incident to a school supervisor, who himself “proceeded to recount the incident to me using the N-word liberally and freely in his retelling of the story.”

That supervisor “does not recall this interaction but admits that his memory may not be as clear given the passage of time,” investigators wrote. The investigators noted the supervisor “strenuously denies using the n-word as part of his vernacular but does acknowledge that in the retelling of a story he may have used the full word for context.”

Investigators ultimately noted insufficient evidence of staff using the n-word.

While the investigative report did include the teachers’ complaints and investigators did summarize interviews with complainants and supervisors, the report did not include transcripts of interviews.

The document and its findings have started to circulate in the school, but it’s still unclear how the school and the district at large are reacting to its findings. Bill Beville, president of the Evergreen Education Association, sat in on interviews and said he felt teachers’ complaints were misrepresented in parts by the investigators.

Beville said some complaints were credible but sensationalized by investigators to sound incredible. He declined to specify.

Still, Beville said he felt administrators have taken allegations seriously.

“I know they’re making administrative decisions based on those interviews,” Beville said. “But the trouble is we’re still kind of in-between things, because they haven’t shown us the outcome.”

According to district spokeswoman Gail Spolar, the district paid Helsell Fetterman $13,575 to compile the report. She noted they were “highly experienced in this type of investigation.”

Spolar said Clear Risk Solutions, the district’s contracted risk management provider, is investigating Johnson’s second leave at no extra cost.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Troy Brynelson