ON SEPTEMBER 15, Beaverton School District officials delivered a curt message to student teacher Seth Stambaugh. Because of an "inappropriate chat" with a student, he was no longer allowed in his classroom at Sexton Mountain Elementary—or anywhere else in the district.
The topic of the "inappropriate" conversation? A few days earlier, a fourth grader had asked Stambaugh whether he was married, and Stambaugh, in response, told the boy the truth: I'm not married. Because I would choose to marry a man. And that's illegal.
Word of the exchange soon made its way to a parent who complained, and that's when a blindsided Stambaugh was quietly asked to leave.
"Other teachers at Sexton Mountain regularly talked about their spouses," he wrote to the Mercury in an email. "I was never informed of any protocol that prohibited me from speaking about my marital status."
Stambaugh's dismissal, first reported by the Mercury last week, has gone on to make national headlines. It follows a spate of nationwide stories about gay teen suicides—and how Americans are dealing with homophobia. But here in Portland, Stambaugh and his lawyer, Lake Perriguey, see the dismissal as another example of flagrant discrimination that should rattle students and teachers across the region.
They haven't decided whether they'll sue the Beaverton School District, but they have "engaged a legal team" to weigh their options. For now, their top priority isn't waging a campaign for gay rights, they say—it's getting Stambaugh back into a classroom so he can finish his education.
Stambaugh, 23, is a graduate education student at Lewis and Clark. He spent weeks preparing for the academic year at Sexton Mountain—a school that serves one of Beaverton's more upscale neighborhoods. Signs of trouble emerged quickly.
During one of the first weeks of school, Stambaugh's co-teacher pulled him aside and told him about a strange incident: A parent had complained that Stambaugh was dressed inappropriately, and the parent had threatened to pull his child from Stambaugh's class. On the day in question, Stambaugh says, he was wearing pressed slacks, a collared shirt, and a cardigan that was a gift from his grandpa.
Perriguey, Stambaugh's lawyer, believes the same parent also complained about the discussion that led to Stambaugh's dismissal.
Maureen Wheeler, a Beaverton School District spokeswoman, rejected the idea that the dismissal was discriminatory—"The district's policy and practice is nondiscrimination," she says—although she could not give details about the criteria used to label Stambaugh's conversation as "inappropriate."
"There were concerns about the conversation with a fourth grade student," she says, noting that because Stambaugh was a student teacher, and not actually an employee, the district was free to request a change in his placement.
Beaverton officials also tried to claim, initially, that the decision was Lewis and Clark's. But the college's public affairs director, Jodi Heintz, says officials there had no say in what would happen to Stambaugh.
When occasional conflicts arise between student teachers and their schools, Lewis and Clark usually sits down and discusses the issues with those involved, says Heintz. In this case, officials received a phone call unilaterally telling them that Stambaugh was banned from the district.
"The fact that we were completely cut out of the process was an aberration," says Heintz. "That is not standard operating procedure."
The Beaverton School District has come under fire from gay rights groups before. In 2008, a former teacher sued the district on harassment and intimidation charges after he tried to produce The Laramie Project, a play about Matthew Shepard. Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, was savagely beaten to death in 1998 because he was gay.
"It's not the first time we've had trouble with the Beaverton school system," says Equity Foundation Executive Director Peter Cunningham. "It's outrageous that we have this kind of response from parents in the 21st century."
Meanwhile, Lewis and Clark hosted two open forums about Stambaugh's case last week, drawing hundreds of students into a discussion with the administration.
"The consensus among everyone was outrage," sums up Lindsey Bosse, editor of the Pioneer Log student newspaper. "Why does Beaverton think this is okay? Why isn't Lewis and Clark doing more about this?"
Perriguey, who is working for Stambaugh pro bono, later threatened to file an injunction against the school district. Only then did the district backtrack, telling Stambaugh that he would be allowed to teach in the district again, just not at Sexton Mountain.
"It was a real loss, not just for him but for all his students who have been denied their student teacher," says Perriguey. "Hopefully, he'll find a place at a school that doesn't discriminate."
Lewis and Clark is helping place Stambaugh in a new school, and it looks likely that he will land somewhere in Portland.
The case spotlights a gap in Oregon's civil rights protections. A 2007 law protects LGBT employees from discrimination in the workplace, but employee protection laws do not automatically cover student teachers, interns, volunteers, and others who do work but aren't technically "employees." If someone like Stambaugh files a complaint for workplace discrimination, the state reviews the incident on a case-by-case basis to determine if an "employment situation" exists.
Next year, Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian will ask the legislature to approve a new policy that would extend state civil rights laws to nontraditional employees.
Student teachers, in the meantime, could potentially receive legal help and protection from the state teachers union. Though Stambaugh wasn't a member, Beaverton Education Association President David Wilkinson says he is worried that Stambaugh's case could make other teachers in the union feel like they have to lie to keep their jobs.
"My concern for me is the chilling effect that this could have both for the students and the members in this district," says Wilkinson.
At this point, no local gay rights organization has taken up Stambaugh's cause—though many have offered words of support.
Says Q Center Executive Director Kendall Clawson, "The case draws attention to the fact that we still, in 2010, are having to struggle for our rights to work, live, and love equally in this country."