A matter of principal

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune
Prospect Charter School, which serves between 200 and 250 students, has seen some turmoil after Brian Purnell became principal in 2017.

Annemarie was 15 years old when some baseball players from Prospect Charter School on a bus coming back from a game solicited her for naked photos.

"I want nudes," was sent to her phone just before 8 p.m. on April 24, 2018.

"Lets see it babe? For 200 maybe? Cmon spread em," came a few messages later.

"You would ... I know how you are," another text said.

Annemarie, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said the texts made her feel "really confused and disappointed and upset" — then really angry.

"Trust me you don’t" she typed back. "You don’t know sh--."

“(By the way) you gonna be reported for harassing a minor,” she texted later.

But the next day, Annemarie decided not to report the texts to any school employees because she didn’t want word to get back to Prospect Principal Brian Purnell.

“He doesn’t take care of stuff,” she said. “And he twists the situation almost in a sense to where he won’t look bad, and everyone else looks bad.”

Annemarie’s allegations mirror those of current and former students and staff who spoke with the Mail Tribune about Purnell over the past four months. They claim Purnell’s leadership has been marked by unresolved harassment complaints, favoritism and targeting. In May 2018, the Prospect teachers union outlined 24 concerns about Purnell to Superintendent Doug Jantzi, saying some staff members described the environment at Prospect as “toxic.”

Staff and students are watching closely as the Prospect School Board considers whether to renew Purnell’s probationary contract by a state-imposed deadline of March 15. The board extended the yearly contract once, in March 2018, and gave Purnell a raise of $5,962 for a total salary of $80,962.

As of Feb. 15, the board had not given notice either way. If it misses the March 15 deadline, Purnell’s contract will be automatically renewed under Oregon law.

“I wouldn’t support the decision,” Annemarie said, “considering it doesn’t seem to be a decision that has been made in the best interest of the children who attend Prospect.”

Annemarie recalled a previous sexting incident in which a baseball player had texted explicit photos of himself to multiple girls at the high school and middle school. He also asked at least one girl for photos of herself.

Two teachers told the Mail Tribune that Purnell called the boy into his office, then allowed him to play in a home baseball game the same day. Whether the boy was disciplined is not known.

Purnell said that student confidentiality laws keep him from speaking about the incident. He also declined to answer general questions from the Mail Tribune about how he handles sexting incidents among students.

A girl who had received texts from the boy and was called into Purnell’s office returned to her class in tears, according to a staff member’s emails obtained by the Mail Tribune and comments from another staff member who worked at Prospect during that time.

Annemarie said the boy also sent harassing messages to her.

“I’ve talked to Purnell about (the boy) before,” Annemarie said. “Mr. Purnell really just doesn’t do anything about it.”

She didn’t expect a more impactful response to the baseball players on the bus, she said.

But a friend described that incident to teacher John Bissey, who then informed Annemarie he had to let Purnell know because as a public school teacher, he’s a mandatory reporter.

Mandatory reporters have a legal obligation to report reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect. Under Oregon law, juveniles sharing explicit photos of themselves or other minors has led to felony prosecutions — although the Oregon Legislature is now considering downgrading the offense to a misdemeanor for juveniles.

Annemarie said the players who were involved were disciplined with out-of-school suspensions.

“They came back thinking that they were cool,” she said. “And nothing changed.”

Bissey, who left Prospect Charter School in January, said he mentioned Annemarie’s reluctance to talk to Purnell while reporting the incident to school administrators.

“It bothers me now that there is a culture that has been promoted of silence,” Bissey said.

The six students who spoke to the Mail Tribune, all of them high-school-age females who asked to use different names for fear of retaliation from administration, said some students experience worse treatment than others. Appearance can matter more than behavior, they said.

“If you’re a student that’s known to have a bad home life, (Purnell) kind of picks those people out and kind of just tears them apart because he knows that the parents won’t do anything about it,” said Ann, a junior.

Purnell declined to respond to requests for comment on staff and students’ assertions about favoritism in his discipline.

Teachers’ complaint dismissed

The Prospect Education Association’s complaint against Purnell, filed through representative Janet Yakopatz, details why staff felt their principal was contributing to an unsafe and unprofessional environment at Prospect.

The four-page document alleged Purnell gave directives without clear directions; used “unprofessional body language” with staff, including “‘sneering looks, eye rolling,’ and other facial expressions that appear to convey ‘disgust,’”; used religion in workplace conversations “in a directive manner”; showed favoritism toward athletes and athletic events; implemented discipline inconsistently; and targeted and retaliated against teachers who expressed concerns over his leadership “to the point of (them) feeling harassed,” among other concerns.

“There are staff members who have flat out said they are ‘afraid of Mr. Purnell’ due to how he has been treating staff members,” the complaint said.

It said several staff members, including longtime teachers, are considering jobs in other districts “due to the actions of Mr. Purnell and no longer feel safe within our school,” the complaint said.

Jantzi dismissed the complaint a month later after interviewing complainants and witnesses, addressing about a third of the concerns directly in his response. He said many of the claims were unfounded, as witnesses did not corroborate them; that staff may be having difficulty adjusting to Purnell’s style, “but it is a safe mode to retain some distance in new relationships”; and that “facts were incomplete or wrong to even make the claim” of inequity in student treatment.

As for the claim of inserting religion into the workplace, Jantzi said, “It did appear that Brian observed an evolution lesson and offered to meet the teacher for coffee. It never happened and Brian did not question the content.”

Jantzi noted some of the claims came from four teachers who were “also feeling under scrutiny,” and encouraged staff to work with Purnell and address any concerns directly with him.

“If students communicate concerns to staff, they should share with administration and trust the process. This includes the concern of ‘favoritism toward athletics’ in that staff are unaware of the situation and process in making this claim,” Jantzi said in his response.

The Mail Tribune reached out multiple times to Jantzi for comment. He declined to answer all questions related to the complaint or other topics.

“As much as Brian and I would actually love to respond to the questions, we cannot without possible violation of confidential personnel and student records,” he wrote in an email.

In July, Yakopatz and Oregon Education Association consultant Daniel Burdis brought the same complaint to the Prospect School Board. The board discussed the complaint at two more meetings, directing Jantzi to consult with the district’s lawyer, but declined to take any action. It said teachers had not first taken their concerns to Purnell as is required by district policy.

A Sept. 14, 2018, letter addressed to Yakopatz and signed by Board Chair Clement Ray Williams said that the board “sincerely wants to resolve this issue for the benefit of all concerned, but wants to assure that Board Policy is followed as written and intended for protection of all individuals.”

The Mail Tribune contacted Williams multiple times and other board members once for comment. Three weeks after first contact, the board released a 118-word statement saying staff and student confidentiality are mandated by district policy.

“The Board has not received any public complaint about the issues on which the Mail Tribune requested comment,” the statement said. “If the Board does receive a complaint, it will follow its policies and conduct an appropriate investigation in compliance with its policy.”

Purnell said that staff had never approached him with concerns prior to going to the superintendent.

“Nobody ever came to me with a complaint to me, with a complaint about me,” he said. “The process wasn’t followed and (Yakopatz) was told to go back to step one ... and that just never happened.”

At least three teachers have left Prospect during the past two school years, citing Purnell as an influencing factor.

Sean O’Neil, who taught math, was one of them. He and Purnell clashed for the first few months of the 2017-2018 school year over O’Neil’s lesson plans and instruction before Purnell placed him on a plan of assistance. It’s a supervision measure for teachers who are determined to not be meeting instructional standards.

Yakopatz, who also received a copy of O’Neil’s plan of assistance, said in a Jan. 17 email to Burdis that she believed the plan was “set up for Sean to fail.”

Two months in, O’Neil emailed Purnell a letter relaying his frustrations with how the plan had been implemented.

“I have tried to take this Plan seriously, and provide my best effort,” he wrote. “This is despite the huge workload it created for me, significant health issues I had that the plan exacerbated, and the lack of assistance I requested being provided.”

O’Neil, who has struggled with chronic depression and also lives with lupus, said that the stress of working at Prospect under Purnell caused him to be hospitalized twice.

“It was a nightmare,” he said. “Every day, I was afraid I was going to be fired, put on leave and asked not to come back anymore.”

He left two months later and now teaches math at the Academies of Math and Science in Tucson, Arizona.

The friction between O’Neil and Purnell apparently wasn’t confined to email threads and the plan of assistance. The May 2018 teachers’ complaint dismissed by Jantzi and the School Board said that, “since the fall, students have been inquiring as to why ‘Mr. Purnell hates Mr. O’Neil’ based on how Mr. Purnell has spoken to them about Mr. O’Neil, as well as how he has acted towards Mr. O’Neil in front of students throughout the course of the school year.”

Education disrupted

Annemarie dropped out of Prospect Charter School in January.

One by one, she stopped participating in all the extracurricular activities she enjoyed: Future Farmers of America, student leadership, and basketball, volleyball and cheer teams.

“After winter break I had just had such bad anxiety about going back, I was literally sick the night before,” she said. “I was puking because I had such bad anxiety.”

Other students also told the Mail Tribune that the school’s environment is interfering with their academics.

“It just feels like a hostile environment every time you go into the office,” said Brittney, a junior. “Every sphincter in me tightens when I see Mr. Purnell, because I’m scared he’s going to interrogate me or harass me.”

Teacher departures have made their schooling turbulent and disrupted the progress of AP classes, the students said.

The students and teachers who spoke with the Mail Tribune said their concerns seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

Annemarie said she had tried to set up meetings with Jantzi. She and Brittney both said their mothers made multiple phone calls asking Jantzi to address their students’ concerns. Another student emailed the superintendent to try to talk about her worries.

Jantzi responded to tell her what day he would be back in Prospect, but after that, the girl said, “that meeting was never done, and I was never contacted again.”

Kristi Stockebrand, mother of two current Prospect students, said her high-school-aged daughter never experienced first-hand negative interactions with Purnell. But the stories she brought home led Stockebrand to tell her daughter not to talk with the principal directly if she’s afraid.

“Based on the things that I had heard from her, and things that affected some of our friends, I told her that she should only be able to go to a teacher or staff member that she trusts if she needs to talk to somebody,” Stockebrand said.

Stockebrand was on the Prospect School Board herself for three years. Her family has deep roots in Prospect; her children are the fourth generation on her husband’s side to attend the school.

They are increasingly likely to be the last, however. Stockebrand said she is looking into transferring her high-school and middle-school-age daughters to another school.

“We are looking into other schools because of the constant revolving door of Teachers & Administration that ultimately affects the students,” she wrote in an email. “Plus, the frustration that we have had about classes, credits and graduation requirements that we have had to research and get figured out on our own.”

Burdis said that because Prospect Charter School relies on attracting students from other districts, its reputation matters more than it might for schools with a more densely populated attendance area.

“That culture’s going to matter to parents making that decision,” he said. “In Prospect, it’s very easy for parents to speak up with their feet and just go to another district.”

Prospect, where the student population hovers between 200 and 250, relies like every other school on average daily membership for its funding. Every student who leaves makes up a more significant percentage of that funding, however.

Teachers and students alike who have left said that they would not return if Purnell remains principal.

“I still want to go back,” O’Neil said. “But if Purnell’s there, I just can’t.”

Annemarie said she was “just trying to get through this year,” but felt unable after her experiences.

“It’s definitely the reason I’m getting my GED,” she said. “It made me hate high school, and I loved it — last year, it was pretty good, but I just don’t want to go back.”

Reach education reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or by email at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com.

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off

Trending