A long-running conflict over a Portland Public Schools educator whom the district has accused of being “toxic” and a danger to students and his fellow teachers will come to a head Tuesday evening when the school board is set to consider his proposed termination.
Bryan Chu has been on paid administrative leave from his role as a middle school social studies teacher at Harriet Tubman Middle School since April of 2022. At an online pre-termination hearing in August during which Chu declined to turn on his camera and instead displayed a picture of himself from behind, wearing a shirt that read “White Li(V)es Matter in PPS,” his lawyer said his client was being targeted for his “willingness to challenge the district’s racism at every level.”
Chu, who is Asian American, is a longtime activist and thorn in the side of district administrators and school board members. He has been particularly vocal over the proposed relocation of Harriet Tubman Middle School from its fumes-laden perch above Interstate 5, saying the district neglected to seek adequate input from affected families and students.
Chu’s suspension from teaching has inspired passionate outcry among some of the school’s students and their families, who say he is a caring educator of color who understood the students in one of the district’s most diverse middle schools. Students have walked out of school to protest his leave and showed up to support him at board meetings.
Portland, like other school districts, has a high bar for dismissing educators protected under its contract with the teachers’ union, and the school board will on occasion bypass Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero’s recommendations on such matters. School board members in June voted 4-3 against terminating popular Ockley Green Middle School dance teacher Damon Keller, another educator of color. They overruled Guerrero and district staff’s concerns about Keller repeatedly calling in sick while working at a different job.
Kate Wilkinson, the assistant general counsel for Portland Public Schools, painted a damning picture of Chu during the 2 1/2 hour hearing in August, saying Chu had failed his students by giving virtually all of them As regardless of whether they completed their assignments or even came to class, masking their needs for future supports and leaving them unprepared for high school courses.
She read aloud from statements his colleagues had given the district about Chu’s teaching methods, citing a fellow teacher who testified that: “During the pandemic I especially struggled to support students who needed recovery services. Students who had never attended comprehensive distance learning were marked 100%present in his class. This kept them from accessing supports that were desperately needed.”
Wilkinson also said that colleagues at a number of schools where Chu had taught, including Hosford and Lane middle schools and Harriet Tubman, said he could be belittling and dismissive to the point of harassment, particularly with female colleagues who said they were afraid to speak up after interactions with Chu. One of his colleagues was particularly direct, telling the district: “I don’t know how he conned all these parents to carry water for him, but this guy is detrimental to this place [Harriet Tubman Middle School] ever changing.”
And Wilkinson said he had been belligerent during interactions with district officials and school board members, including saying “F— Guadalupe,” of Guerrero during a public meeting.
“Mr. Chu is not being dismissed because of his belief that there is systemic racism in society,” Wilkinson said. “He is being dismissed for his bullying, harassing behavior and for not performing the basic functions of his job that he is being paid to do.”
Chu’s Portland Association of Teachers-provided lawyer, Noah Barish of McKanna Bishop Joffe, said the district had fundamentally misrepresented his client’s actions and intentions, that plenty of other educators had spoken up in public forums without being targeted in the same way and that Chu was facing dismissal because he “does not fit the stereotype of model Asian minority or Portland polite.”
Barish said Chu was “a highly effective and beloved teacher of color who challenges the district’s racism at every level. This case is about the price paid by that educator for being honest and refusing to flinch when addressing difficult topics including advancing racial equity and placing his Black and brown students above the needs of his mostly white colleagues.”
As an example, he cited Chu’s response to another teacher who had suggested that staff at Harriet Tubman place stickers on their classroom doors so queer students would know that they could find a safe haven. In an email, Chu characterized such gestures as performative, adding “This makes it seem like we are doing the work without actually having to do it.” That was an invitation to further conversation, Barish said, and not the belittling that the district suggested it constituted.
“They are inferring a misogynistic tone and harassment,” Barish said, of Chu’s female colleagues who had objected to his behavior. “Just because they are women and he is a man does not prove gender discrimination and harassment. This is a conflict and difference of opinion.”
Even before the pandemic, Tubman was a chaotic, often out of control environment where student fights were common, Barish said, and Chu’s classroom was a safe haven for students. He admitted that his client had allowed students to skip other classes and hang out in his classroom, but he suggested that was out of solidarity with students in search of a quiet space to decompress from other teachers and a system that they felt disregarded their needs.
Barish called his client’s teaching style “structured” and “predictable” with a focus on teaching students “how they can relate to the world around them.”
The school board is scheduled to consider Guerrero’s recommendation that it terminate Chu Tuesday evening, after a period of public comment. School board chair Gary Hollands said Monday he was “still processing” all the information and had not made up his mind how to vote.
— Julia Silverman, @jrlsilverman, [email protected]