As published in The Portland Tribune, October 13, 2010

Scrutiny follows gay student teacher’s removal

Seth Stambaugh and Superintendent Jerry Colonna will meet this week


The Beaverton Valley Times

The removal of a gay student teacher from his assignment at Sexton Mountain Elementary School last month has raised questions about what teachers can and cannot say in the Beaverton School District.

Seth Stambaugh, a Lewis & Clark graduate student, was working on a journaling activity with his students when a fourth-grader asked him if he was married. He said no, and when the student asked why, Stambaugh replied that it was not legal in Oregon, because he would choose to marry another man.

Another student overheard the conversation and that student’s parent contacted the district. Less than a week later, Stambaugh was told he could not return to his position — or to any school in the Beaverton School District.

Stambaugh, who has recently been reassigned to Portland Public Schools, has a lawyer who says legal action is a possibility.

Beaverton Superintendent Jerry Colonna plans to meet with Stambaugh in the next few days, and the district expects to respond to the controversy. According to all parties involved, this response will need to cover a lot of ground.

David Wilkinson, president of the Beaverton Education Association, the union that represents 2,600 district teachers and other staff, says the incident has shed light on a double standard.

“As a heterosexual male, I can talk about my wife and our children,” he says. “Our (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) members have been shown that they are not at liberty to discuss their personal lives in the same way.”

Wilkinson says that many gay teachers choose not to be open in the workplace in Beaverton, and recent events have given these teachers more reason to feel uncomfortable.

“I have been contacted by many teachers who are deeply concerned about their vulnerability in light of this incident,” Wilkinson says. “This incident and the district’s response to it has brought a bright light to the lack of clarity around what is allegedly age-appropriate or reasonable to discuss with students.

“I have asked our superintendent to take steps to bring clarity to our work force on these issues.”

It gets complicated

In general, education experts say that teachers should feel free to share parts of their lives with their students.

“We want teachers to be fully present as humans to their students,” says Scott Fletcher, dean of Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling. “We expect the kind of relationship that can motivate the students to be their best, to inspire them.”

This entails sharing relevant life experience, Fletcher says. As a result, “it’s not as easy as we might think to draw a bright line between personal information and part of the curriculum.”

When the teacher does not identify as heterosexual, “it gets complicated,” says Randy Hitz, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University. “Unfortunately, it is still the case that some people view the homosexual lifestyle as being inappropriate somehow.”

This means that teachers need to be careful.

“You don’t go out of your way to talk about it,” Hitz says. “You don’t flaunt it.”

Mark Girod, chairman of Western Oregon University’s Division of Teacher Education, likens the open statement of a teacher’s sexual orientation with other forms of free speech.

“You have the right to live your life,” Girod says, mentioning such behaviors as having a tattoo or a nose ring. “But when you’re acting as a teacher in a school, sometimes it’s not appropriate to wear the nose ring.”

“It’s simply a fact that there are schools in which the circumstances don’t allow teachers to be out,” Fletcher says.

Curriculum about when and if to share personal information usually comes in the last semester of teacher instruction, when students are typically in their student-teacher placements, according to teacher education experts. While the schools all discuss issues of professional boundaries, the complications for gay teachers aren’t explicitly part of the curriculum.

Jeana Frazzini, executive director for the gay-rights organization Basic Rights Oregon, says it is a mistake to say this is only an issue for gay teachers.

“There are professional boundaries that every teacher, gay or straight, needs to set,” Frazzini says.

She believes there should be one set of clear guidelines that determine what personal information teachers share. “Where you run into trouble is when people have different expectations,” Frazzini says.

Policies are in place

Colonna says the district is planning to use the controversy as a learning experience.

“We want to look at the incident as greater than one person in one classroom having one discussion,” he says.

The district will consult with gay and lesbian staff members, as well as Basic Rights Oregon. “I really believe we have policies in place, but policies are paper and words. These things are in the gray, not black and white,” Colonna says.

The district will look at applicable policies and expects to create a new system for dealing with student teachers, he says. The contracts and placement of the up to 350 student teachers in the Beaverton School District each year are handled through the students’ colleges and universities.

Beaverton School District will take more responsibility for regulating its relationship with student teachers in the future, Colonna says.

Part of that structure will be something Colonna says has been missing from the incident: “The opportunity to sit down and discuss the item with the student teacher, Lewis & Clark, human resources staff and the principal, before any action had been taken or decisions made, would have been helpful,” he says.