A conversation with Bethany Barnes, investigative reporter, The Oregonian
Ethan: I’m Ethan Magoc, a journalist at the Innovation News Center at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. Today I’m speaking with Bethany Barnes. She’s a reporter at the Oregonian in Portland, Oregon and her 2017 story, called “Benefit of the Doubt,” won our Brechner Center for Freedom of Information’s annual award. She’s visiting Gainesville and UF this week. So, Bethany, how long have you for the Oregonian and how long have you covered the topic that you do?
Bethany: Thanks so much for having me. Yeah, I’ve worked at the Oregonian since July 2016. I cover education at the Oregonian, in particular Oregon’s largest school district Portland Public Schools, located in Portland, Oregon.
Ethan: Who is Mitch Whitehurst and how in the course of your coverage did you come upon him?
Bethany: Right, so Mitch Whitehurst was a veteran educator within Portland Public Schools. He worked there for about thirty years and I ran across him because, as a beat reporter, I’d just moved to Portland, was covering K-12 for the first time, and I wanted to get the lay of the land of the school district and…one thing I try to do when you’re looking at different agencies, is you want to know who the players are but you also generally want to look at the court records and know who sued them and what’s going on there. And, I had gotten a tip about this one lawsuit had a new legal filing that I might want to read. And so, I settled down and to look and see if it had any merit and it was an employee dispute, so you had a school district employee suing the district alleging that they had, you know, there was wrongdoing. And, his issue was that he said that this teacher who had harassed him was a known danger to the school and that he was a known danger to the school because there were several students who had complained about sexual misconduct over the years. And that to me, as an education reporter, was really interesting because then you had a policy question about the school. Did the district ignore allegations and do they have policies in place to protect students? And, I felt that was a really important answer that the public needed to know. And I started, I wrote about the lawsuit and these allegations, but I wanted to go deeper, and I wanted to get the records and see what they had actually done.
Ethan: You ended up covering a school board meeting, correct, where they decided to settle this? Was that the same lawsuit they decided to settle?
Bethany: Yeah, so I wrote about the lawsuit and the idea of these allegations not knowing, not knowing even what the allegations were because that was secret. It was a part of the court record. There was a protective order. I wasn’t allowed to know. And so, the school board settles the case but, in light of my article, you know there’s sort of this discussion about these student allegations and they say, you know, “We’re going to look at what happened. We’re gonna find lessons learned. We’re gonna do an investigation. Staff please investigate.” And, no one actually ended up doing that. What they did do was fight me on the records and that’s where mainly the energy went.
Ethan: And, that decision to settle was 4:3 and I assume that was done purely to keep a lot of this out of public view? Or were you able to confirm that at any point? Why they settled? Do we have any idea?
Bethany: Yeah, I mean, you can’t really confirm why someone settled in a lot of ways but, I mean, just as far as the people that made those decisions, board members told me, I mean, especially after the story, that they now feel, I mean, one of them was very critical of their council and said that they felt they were pressured to settle so that more information wouldn’t come out. And, I mean, he said that he thought they needed new lawyers.
Ethan: And, so what records did you go about then trying to obtain and when did you realize what you needed, I guess?
Bethany: Yeah, and so, I mean, what I did, and I try to do this with every investigation, is you see anyone that’s touched any piece of information you might want and even if they have the same information you want to ask everyone ‘cause some people give you more and it’s hard to know if you have the complete thing. And so, I went after police records because he had been subject with this employee. He’d been convicted of harassment of this employee and so there were some police records there looking into that. I went after teacher licensing records because they had done an investigation and revoked his license. And, then I went after the school district’s own investigative records, in particular what I wanted there was I wanted, you know, the student complaints. I wanted to know what students had said about him that had raised alarm and how the district acted.
Ethan: So where did you begin to encounter difficulty in obtaining which of those documents, I guess?
Bethany: Right, and so I made a records request with the school district and the school district didn’t want to turn over those records. I ended up waiting several months basically kind of begging them to deny me the records so that then I could go to the, how it works in Oregon, is you can, you know, file a petition with the District Attorney, it’s not really a court process. So, I’m doing that as just a regular person and then the school district will argue against me. And, they ended up hiring their outside law firm to fight me on it. And, their argument largely in part was student privacy.
“They were saying it would be dangerous to release these records and to protect students they had to be kept secret. And, when I eventually won the records, what the records really showed was it was the school district hadn’t protected students.”
Ethan: Wow. Reading your account in “Benefit of the Doubt,” it’s a very straightforward narrative. Right, there’s not a lot of slant or bias that’s injected. How long did it take for you to get to the point that you could just lay it all out because you had all the evidence, you didn’t need to, you know, make any jumps? What was the complete timeline like for you to get to that point where you could just write it?
Bethany: Yeah, I mean, the whole investigation took about a year because I learned about the case in August and then I published in August a year later. And so, it took a long time. I wanted to be sure that I could have as complete a record of the timeline as possible. And so, I got the records in February and then, I’m also a beat reporter so I’m also, part of the reason it took so long isn’t that I’m spending all of my time on this. Other things are happening on my beat. But, I really wanted to make the best pass I could at victims that I was in contact with and if they wanted to tell their story, and how they wanted to tell their story, and what their fears were. And, I really wanted to just be able to lay it out and I narratively chose the point of writing it from the district’s knowledge. So, if you look at the chronology, it’s told not when the first run-in happens with a student, but it’s told from the first time the district had a chance, at least according in writing, to know about it.
Ethan: How did you come to that decision to choose that tact?
Bethany: It was a little difficult. I had, I have several wonderful mentors, all of which would tell you they had to field incessant, desperate phone calls from me explaining, like, “I don’t think anyone’s gonna care!” and then, “What if they don’t care?” and “What if I’m not gonna do it justice?” And I had, at one point was having coffee with one these mentors and it was the first time I was telling them about the story and at the end of it he said, “That’s sounds great. Just write it.” (Laughter) And I was, like, waiting for him to offer some, like, actual, more instructional wisdom beyond that and I was, like, “What do you, what do you mean just write it?” He goes, “Well you just told it to me, like, tell it chronologically.” That’s, and that’s always a way to go, like, you know, you do, when you listen to some of these podcasts and people are like, “I just did it chronologically.” If you start reading stories for that, which I did after this, I was like, “Okay.” But if you’re gonna do it chronologically and you have a weird chronology in which things are happening in the ‘80s but no one knows about them until, you know, much later it becomes murky and I thought, you know, the point was what did the district know and when did they know it and how did they act, right? I’m not writing the story. It’s a district accountability story more than it is a Mitch Whitehurst accountability story. And so, it made sense to think about it from their perspective, as if they’re a person, what did they know and what chances did they have?
Ethan: Sure, and so back to the point of obviously not taking sides and just laying it out down the middle with the records, was that difficult to maintain given how they fought in court to keep things shielded?
Bethany: You know, I actually don’t think so. I didn’t, you know, it was frustrating that things were kept secret for reasons that I obviously disagreed with ‘cause I felt like it was very important to the people should know this. But, more so, I think it was so important, or one of the things I was so interested in, is why people made these decisions. Right? Most likely when people are making decisions that are harmful, they’re not intending to do that. And, I wanted to look at this case because I thought it would be informative about our policies and practices. And so, it doesn’t really become about, necessarily, trying to look and see, you know, demonizing somebody. It’s more about why did they make this decision and what can be learned from it and how can it be better in the future? And, when you’re interested in that question, I mean, you’re just interested in that question.
Ethan: Sure. Had you ever gone to court for a records battle like this? Like, how did you know to go about it the way that you did?
Bethany: Yeah, well, sort of, I’d had a different story where we had actually sued for records. And so, I had sort of, when you do, when that happens you end up in a room with lawyers and they’re talking to you about the brief and you’re going over everything you know, and I had covered courts as a reporter. And so, I felt familiar with the legal system but I’m not, I’m not a lawyer and I wasn’t, like, I didn’t have to go to court. I just had to write, I ended up writing this ninety-five page “Please Give Me These Records” document. But I structured it. There’s not any appeal process in Nevada where I came from, so it’s sort of new, and I talked to people in the newsroom that had written appeals. But I ended up just making a decision when structuring it that I was gonna do it like a court brief I’ve read. So, I did exhibits that I labeled, like it was “Exhibit A” and then I fashioned them like you would read in a court brief. And I don’t really know if that was what I was supposed to do, but it worked.
Ethan: So, go back to that as well as needed in the future. This line, to me, really stays with you after you finish reading the piece, which was, “I will take no further action on this matter.” And if you could explain who wrote that and what that context around it was and I’ll get to the second half of that question but, to me, that, I’m still sitting there stewing on that one.
Bethany: That, that’s sort of great to hear, ‘cause I thought that was one of the things that jumped out at me reading this, especially coming from the point, this story was really propelled by me wanting to know what happened. And I wanted readers to feel the pacing of, kind of, even though I’m not in the story, you are kind of desperate for the information of why these things happened. And, it was, that was a stunning document for me to read and it’s a line me and my editor talked about a lot because that line is said by a woman named Maureen Sloane who’s the school district’s sort of powerful HR lawyer at the time that some of this is happening. And she writes that in a memo that she writes just after this woman has come to her saying that when she was in school several years before, Mitch Whitehurst had demanded oral sex from her and a friend. He’d taken them to his apartment complex, she said, and she had run away, and the friend ended up giving him oral sex. And in that conversation, which I know because I have the notes that she took, in addition to that she names the friend, she names her boyfriend at the time that could corroborate this. So, Maureen has…
Ethan: So, this is the lawyer or the victim?
Bethany: The victim. She tells the lawyer this and so the lawyer takes notes from that conversation, in addition to that memo, so I know what the lawyer had and could have acted on. She could have contacted this friend. She could have contacted the boyfriend. And asked them to corroborate her story. But she doesn’t do any of those things. She doesn’t forward it to the Teacher Licensing Agency, which eventually, when they do get a hold of this, finds her account credible and takes away his license by doing all of the things I just listed that she could have done. Instead she writes that line that you’re keyed in on…
Ethan: “…I will take no further action on this matter.”
Bethany: Right, and it’s so rare as a reporter, you often can’t say that people didn’t do something like proving a negative but, in this case, she, she quite literally documented that she did not intend to do any follow-up on this whatsoever.
Ethan: And that particularly stood out to me, that, this is the second half of my question: Given everything that unfolded in the Fall of 2017, now your story came out in August, right? So, did that line stay with you as you were watching the national news where every industry was affected by sexual harassment allegations and, you know, people in power being brought down, obviously Whitehurst’s downfall came before this but, it wasn’t fully told until August, right, with your story?
Bethany: Yeah, well, it was very strange reporting on it because, I mean, I’ve been doing follow-up in sort of the “Me, too” era of whatever we’re calling this (Ethan interjects)
Bethany: But, I wasn’t doing any of the reporting benefiting from that and it was a very different time period and my story published before any of that came out. And so, it was such a huge difference.
“When I started contacting these victims and talking to them that was at the time in which, right around when there were allegations about Trump and Trump was threatening to sue these women, and so that was a thing we talked about. And, then there was this feeling that people didn’t care about those allegations. And so, we would talk about, you know, you have this happening with the President and people don’t seem to care. Are they going to care about some random teacher?”
Ethan: In Portland, Oregon.
Bethany: Yeah, and so, and victims feeling nervous that no one, that these stories aren’t deemed interesting and no one does care, and nothing ever happens. And so, that was just such a different place to be reporting from and then but doing some follow-up and talking to some additional people, people really feel differently. And, it’s hard to tell how much of that is “Me, too” like some people, it’s a thing that we talk about like when I continue to keep touch with them, they’re watching Larry Nassar, they’re looking at this stuff, but it’s also different because after I wrote the story there was such a swift reaction from the school board. They hired outside investigators and they’re paying for an investigation and we haven’t seen that yet. But, there, there is more of a response from the article and things are sort of different. And, people are waiting to see there.
Ethan: So, there could still be more to come. Just to back up for a second, to anyone who hasn’t read the story, what ultimately led to Mitch Whitehurst’s downfall?
Bethany: This is a point that everyone sort of keys in on. And, it’s a little bit strange. And, so, what happens is that he’s teaching at this K-8 school and they have problems at this school. At one point, all of the girls in his gym class boycott because they’re so creeped out by him and nothing happens to him then. But, eventually he is, you know, he walks up to this employee at this school and he pokes him in the anus. And, that employee is very upset by this. He gets the police involved. There is a criminal investigation into him for harassment that he ends up pleading guilty to. And, that cause him, you know, to get looked at by the Teacher Licensing Board, which then, they’re talking to him about that issue and looking into this sort of poking incident and when they’re going through all the files of his record they see, you know, the previous allegations of sexual misconduct. And so, they open a second investigation into that and ultimately, when they start asking about these student allegations, he just surrenders his license and they find that he’s, you know, committed sexual misconduct for students and that’s the reason they revoke the license.
Ethan: So, it’s not that he was ever, he was terminated at one point, right, from the district? Or was that different?
Bethany: Yeah, he gets terminated but that’s while all of this is ongoing.
Bethany: So, at that point, they pressure him to leave because there’s all this drama with the employee and there’s an open investigation and, you know.
Ethan: Okay. Any idea what he’s doing now?
Bethany: Not totally clear. He would not talk to me for the story but, according at least in, when the license was revoked a few years ago, he had listed that he was a longshoreman and also an Uber driver.
Bethany: But I don’t know if that he’s still doing either of those.
Ethan: Hanging out in the gig economy there somewhere. Which sources had to remain anonymous and which of them went on the record? How did you and your editors kind of come to those decisions to grant, you know, based on who felt most comfortable or whatever their position in life was where they felt comfortable opening up and having their picture taken and everything that went into the story?
Bethany: Yeah, that was a big debate. And, it was interesting, in the sense, like all, everyone felt very different about it. The woman I open with, Rose Soto, who’s the first kind of written complaint, was very on board with being public. She had felt, she had felt, she told me specifically it was very empowering to meet me, and she had wanted to tell her story from the beginning, I mean, not necessarily to tell it to a newspaper but she wanted someone to listen. She went more than a decade thinking she wasn’t believed and, you know, feeling unheard. So, for her, she was like, “This is great. You can bring video to my home. I’ll do whatever you want.” And, she was very public. And, then there is a woman named Caprice who let us use her first name and she’s working with the district. She happened to grow up and be a substitute teacher. And so, we had a lot of conversations about how she felt and, you know, she was nervous about him maybe coming after her or just nervous about all this. And so, she ended up, her comfort level happened to be using her first name which, you know, if you wanted to figure out who she was it would be very easy to do that and people that know her are gonna know, but it is like an extra step of it’s maybe not the first Google, you know, is your whole history, you know, being hit on by this teacher as a teen. And, then there is one woman who is completely anonymous, and, you know, we had a lot of debate about that and, you know, her reasons were pretty legitimate in that she, the only person she had ever told was me. She had never spoken aloud to anyone about this before and we had, I had lots of phone calls with her and talking about if she wanted to talk or if she didn’t. I mean, her first email to me was that she had read my original story and she just wanted to tell me that it was true because she had known, like, it had happened to her as well. And, told me to never contact her again. And so, you know, her reasons were that her family didn’t know about this and, you know, her parents didn’t know, and she felt like it would be him victimizing her family all over again to have to go through this. And so, we ended up having conversations with, you know, the paper’s lawyer and talking about that and talking to her about that and ended up feeling kind of at a comfort level there. But it was a debate with each one, especially ‘cause you should be very careful about anonymous sources and have a good lay of the land on who they are and what’s going on there.
Ethan: Wow. What has been the public reaction to the story? Obviously, you’ve won an award so you’re here but, beyond that. Locally, where this has mattered most, what’s it been like?
“Yeah, it was a pretty intense reaction. I mean, immediately after publishing the story one of the school board members called me and he said he was calling immediately just to thank me for the story. And, you know, he was the person who was like, ‘We need new lawyers eventually.’ But he basically said, ‘I want to thank you, but I also need to get off the phone, because I’m too angry to possibly speak about this and just so livid about it.’”
Bethany: Especially because he was, you know, on the board when they said they were gonna investigate and then nothing happened and so he felt just there was just lost time. He was upset this had happened. And, you know, the school board has really, they launched this investigation—which who knows if that’s going to be good or not? But, they’ve said, “We want new policies and practices.” They added a second teacher to that investigation which the investigation’s focus allegedly, haven’t seen it yet, is about policies and practices and what we can learn from these. So, not necessarily like, “We definitely know what’s happened with Mitch Whitehurst,” but, “What’s wrong in our policies?” And, they added the second teacher because in his situation he was pressured to retire after some sorts of allegations and they struck an agreement with him saying, “We won’t say anything about you other than you worked here at these times.” And so, he goes on to another school district in which in that job he’s convicted of sexually touching six girls in one day. And, they added him because they thought, “Well, what is this deal we’re striking and why is that happening?” And so, it’s been a real focus. And, then the woman that’s a substitute teacher she felt kind of empowered from the article. She’d been very downtrodden, understandably ‘cause she had twice spoken up about this and had been very much written off. And so, she said, “You know, I’ve always felt that I spoke up and then I was iced out of substitute gigs after this and that the only person punished was me. I think you should investigate if that happened.” So, she filed an HR complaint and the HR wrote her back after a while and said, “We were able to look in our computer system and you’re absolutely right. You were retaliated against. We’re so sorry. It shouldn’t be this way. We would like to pay you back wages.” And so, there has been a real response. And, then I also heard from several people who had experienced, unfortunately, sexual abuse in their schools not in this district but feeling like it was nice to see people speaking out and having that paid attention to.
Ethan: Wow. And, my last question: Just from a personal history standpoint, was in college when my college president was brought down by the local newspaper. Similar investigation, not quite as many public records, but that was in an era when newspapers were still printing money because classified ads were still good, and everything economically was great. I don’t know what the situation is at the Oregonian, but I assume it’s similar to national. What is it like to do a story like this, to be able to have some of the resources on the side of your beat reporting gig, in an era when there are still all these cutbacks we’ve seen at the Denver post and everywhere else? What was that like just, like, I’m sure you try not to think about that day to day but yet you still, you’ve caused change here from the position of a newspaper, a regional, local newspaper.
Bethany: Yeah. Thank you. I actually think I do try to think about it day to day because, I mean, the reason, I did not get extra resources to do this story really. I mean, I got, we made sure once I had the goods that it had good treatment and had a wonderful, I mean, it’s always I have resources and that I marshalled them from the paper that this is going to have video and things like that but, I mean, I was this new hire, right, who’s just reading legal filings and it was something for a long time I worked on the side. And so, when I say I think about it day to day I have to, I feel like when we cover less it’s more important to pick stories that are going to have resonance or are going to say something about something larger and to do some of the less day to day stories so that you can do stuff that’s meatier because you can’t cover everything day to day. That’s a losing battle. And so, what the public is going to be best served by is stories that are gonna have resonance that say something larger. And so, in this story I was sort of tackling how sexual misconduct has happened in schools and sort of looking at that. And, I think what you have to do is pick, like, be very judicious about your time ‘cause that’s the only way to do it. And so, I do think on a day to day level, “How is my time being spent? Is it worth doing this daily or that daily and how can I be feeding into some larger conversation about what’s going on in schools?”
Ethan: Very good. Well, Bethany, thank you for your reporting, for visiting us, and for sharing some of this.
Bethany: Thank you so much for having me.
Posted: August 27, 2018