Being openly gay didn’t keep Brett Bigham from being named Oregon’s Teacher of the Year for 2014 — the first out gay person to receive the distinction. But with the honor, he says, came retaliation in the form of antigay harassment.
Bigham, a special education teacher with the Portland-area Multnomah Education Service District, had filed complaints with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries alleging various instances of harassment, which he said started soon after he became teacher of the year. Now he has settled with the service district for about $140,000, ending the labor bureau’s investigation, which appeared likely to find merit in his claims, Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.
“If the case had gone forward, a determination of substantial evidence of discrimination and retaliation on the basis of [Bigham’s] sexual orientation, whistleblowing activity, and for opposing unlawful practices … would have been recommended,” said a memo from lead investigator Andrea Damewood, OPB reports.
Bigham filed his first complaint last November, saying district officials were restricting what speaking engagements he could accept and what he could say. The Teacher of the Year is often called upon to make speeches and attend special events. But Bigham said his supervisors didn’t want him to talk to LGBT youth groups, and warned him against mentioning that he’s gay when speaking in rural areas, telling him, “Someone is going to shoot you in the head.” Further, they told him he could not attend a National Education Association event unless he dropped his complaints, although a last-minute agreement allowed him to attend.
He also accused his coworkers of harassing him, with actions such as dismantling his desk while he was away. Colleagues’ interviews with the labor bureau appeared to confirm this, although some also said Bigham may have overreacted, according to OPB.
Barbara Jorgensen, who was district superintendent at the time Bigham says the harassment occurred, told investigators she was largely unaware of such incidents. But at one point the district did have a problem with Bigham, as when it renewed his contract for the 2015-2016 school year, it did so “despite serious concerns with his performance, insubordinate behavior, and focus on matters other than his students,” administrators said during the investigation.
Bigham was eventually placed on leave, fired, and then rehired, The Oregonian notes, before he finally resigned this spring.
The district, which provides services in special education, technology, health, and a variety of other areas to eight school districts in and around Portland, denied any wrongdoing. As a condition of the settlement, Bigham has withdrawn his complaints.
He told The Oregonian he had some reservations about agreeing to do so, but said he was ultimately glad the labor bureau’s findings were made public. “I’m just extremely relieved that the public will know I was telling the truth,” he said. “My reputation was at stake in all of this. I feel like my name is clear, which is a really nice way to walk away from the situation.”