Hundreds of students at Ockley Green Middle School in North Portland walked out of class Friday, April 14 to protest their school placing two Black staffers on leave. The protest is the second in two months under a school administration that is also battling a federal Title IX complaint over alleged mistreatment of female students.
Ockley Green students held signs, circling the building, chanting, “Black teachers matter!” before eventually making their way off school grounds.
Students say Damon Keller, a dance teacher at the school, and Phyllis Harris, a librarian, were both recently placed on administrative leave from their jobs. Students and families aren’t sure why, but they suspect Keller and Harris are being unfairly targeted for discipline, to the detriment of students.
“Recently, they’ve been firing mostly all of our Black faculty members at Ockley Green and around PPS, too,” a student at Ockley Green said Friday. Portland Public Schools staff cited a “personnel matter” and declined to say why the staffers were put on leave.
Parents say they were told Keller used up an excessive amount of sick time, despite clearing the schedule with administrators, but district staff could not confirm.
Earlier this year, Chris Riser, another Black teacher at Ockley Green, left the school mid-year, to take a job at an emerging charter school geared toward students of color. His absence has been felt by students.
Riser, who taught at Ockley Green for seven years before departing, was also placed on leave back in 2018 for helping students organize a protest. He was reinstated at the school, which has seen new principals come and go, but Riser said little has changed at Ockley Green to improve the culture for educators of color.
“The issues with administration go all the way back to the first year of consolidation (as a middle school),” Riser said, referring to 2016, when Ockley Green opened as a new comprehensive middle school.
Riser left around the same time the school hired Spencer Crum as the new assistant principal last fall.
Crum, who grew up in Portland and formerly taught P.E. and health at West Sylvan Middle School, was already under the microscope by Ockley Green staff before his administration gig started.
In 2018, while recounting his experiences growing up as a white kid in “pre-gentrified” North Portland on a podcast, Crum said having exclusively African American friends made it difficult for him to feel like he belonged around white people. Through his youth and up until his early 20s, he said culturally, he identified as Black.
“I’ve always felt more comfortable around people of color than white people,” Crum said on the “Socks & Sandals” podcast. “Going into the University of Oregon, I registered as Black, non-Hispanic.”
He also marked his race as Black when taking the SATs.
That was a red flag for some Ockley Green staffers.
“We all found the podcast,” Riser recalled.
Despite Crum spending the bulk of his life in Black-dominated spaces, some say it hasn’t helped create a more welcoming space at Ockley. Riser noted at least one teacher at the school plans to ask for a reassignment next year.
“At the same time the district is talking about retention, they’re actively hemorrhaging educators of color,” Riser said.
Ockley Green parents say the school has demonstrated a pattern of racist treatment of its teachers in one of the city’s most diverse middle schools.
“Ockley is one of only a handful of minority-majority schools in the state and the building is literally falling apart,” Shannon Shambaugh, an Ockley Green parent, wrote in a letter, noting “huge class sizes and unfilled teaching positions.”
“Students cannot learn in this environment,” Shambaugh wrote. “The principal does not seem to have experience with culturally responsive instruction or an understanding of how white supremacy culture operates and how it has caused great harm in North Portland. PPS has invested in at least 15 YEARS of racial equity training for district staff and THIS is the best they can do??!!”
Friday’s protest wasn’t the first at the middle school and comes amid a backdrop of unease and mistrust of school administrators, among Ockley Green families.
Last month, students protested over concerns about Crum, the new vice principal. Parents told the Mercury a man believed to be Crum was filmed briefly entering a girls restroom and locker room at Ockley Green, unannounced. A student was in the restroom at the time and captured a cell phone video of a man she said was Crum, noting his presence in the girls room made her uncomfortable. The video was shared among a parent group. Other female students have alleged untoward behavior by Crum, but it’s unclear whether any of those concerns have been substantiated.
Around the same time, Crum was named in a federal civil rights complaint, alleging violations of Title IX, the law that guarantees equal access to sports and other federally funded education programs.
Leah Ongiri said she filed a complaint with the school when her daughter observed a pattern of unfair treatment and exclusion of girls by a P.E. teacher.
“Girls were deemed too slow. When they complained, he would sort of encourage the boys to make fun of them,” Ongiri said. She brought the issue to the principal, Julie Rierson, but Rierson was gone, so the complaint went to Crum to investigate. Crum denied any wrongdoing from the P.E. teacher and insisted it was a misunderstanding. Ongiri said she got no help from Rierson, who was dismissive of her concerns.
“That’s when we decided to contact the office of civil rights,” she said. “Since then (Crum) has been seeking my daughter out to retaliate…finding her in the gym, finding her talking to her friends, or on her cell phone. He got close to her physically, raised his voice… each of those times resulting in no disciplinary action or write-up.”
According to students, Crum has been away from school, but working remotely.