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Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Landmark Case: Settlegoode v. Portland Public Schools

The case of Settlegoode v. Portland Public Schools (PPS) is an important one in the world of special education. Not only did a set a favorable legal precedent for special education teachers, but it continues to offer lessons to teachers and parents on the benefits of keeping detailed written records in times of dispute.

In 2000, Dr. Pamella Settlegoode, an adaptive PE teacher, was fired by the Portland Public Schools after enduring 18 months of frustration in trying to advocate for her special education students. She sued the district and her supervisors, and the jury found in her favor on all claims and awarded her a $1 million settlement. (A magistrate judge subsequently overturned the jury award, but it was reinstated on appeal.)

A key factor in Dr. Settlegoode’s victory was her well-organized paper trail. She wrote letters to document her concerns, even after her supervisors directed her to stop. Good records, including logs, calendars, journals and letters, are essential to effective advocacy, and can help you resolve disputes before they reach the courts.

Read the story of Pamella Settlegoode’s case below. Imagine if she had testified but had no evidence to substantiate her claims. Do you think the outcome of her case would have been different? What is your opinion?

Pamella Settlegoode's Story

In September 1998, Dr. Pamella Settlegoode accepted a job as an adaptive PE teacher with the Portland Oregon Public School District. Almost immediately Dr. Settlegoode, or Dr. S., as she was known to her students, was struck by inequities in access and services. These included:

• Denial of participation. Many students with disabilities were not allowed to participate in sports and activities that were freely available to non-disabled students. Many of these denials were in clear violation of law.

• Inaccessible facilities. Dr. S. testified that most of the high schools she was assigned to were not accessible for people in wheelchairs—no accessible sidewalks, no elevators, no ramps. In one school, the wrestling coach, a paraplegic, needed his own students to carry him from one floor to another.

• Altered IEPs. Dr. S. complained in writing that district personnel altered students’ IEP’s and failed to provide required services in IEP’s, both violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Act. How did her supervisor deal with these issues? By directing her to discontinue writing letters.


Dr. S. proceeded to write a 10-page letter to Robert Crebo, special education director, to express her concerns about discrimination and retaliation, comparing the treatment of Portland’s disabled students to that of black students before the civil rights movement.

How did Crebo respond? He sent her letter to the supervisor who had initially ordered her to stop writing letters, and the retaliations continued. Dr. S was again directed not to write letters. She was stripped of responsibilities. She was ordered not to volunteer for a reading program during her lunch hour. She was excluded from IEP meetings for her students. Her classes were cancelled.

Dr. S. then wrote a 15-page letter to Superintendent Ben Canada, citing retaliation and the ongoing problems with discrimination against students with disabilities. Canada admitted that he read one page of her letter, saw the claim of retaliation and forwarded her letter to the same individuals who were retaliating against her.

Dr. S. was repeatedly directed to stop writing letters. Why? Unlike spoken words, letters are powerful evidence. Attorneys know that spoken words and verbal admissions often have little value in litigation.


Eighteen months after she began work as an adaptive PE teacher, Dr. S was fired. She sent out fifty job applications, but did not have a single offer. She was blackballed.

The Lawsuit

Dr. S. is married to William Goode, an experienced federal court litigator who specializes in civil rights litigation. Mr. Goode prepared and filed a complaint http://www.wrightslaw.com/law/pleadings/or.complaint.settlegoode.pdf in the U.S. District Court against Portland Public Schools, Multnomah School District No. 1, Susan Winthrop, Robert Crebo, and Larry Whitson. Among other things, the complaint alleged that:

PPS intentionally did not provide Dr. S. and her students adequate scheduling, equipment, facilities or other support.

PPS intentionally assigned to Dr. S. students located at several different school locations, in a manner such that she could not reasonably provide them with appropriate instruction. Although assigned to a campus of PCC, Winthrop advised Dr. S. not to provide any services to disabled students at PCC. [what is PCC?]

In response to Dr. S.'s internal reports of discrimination, inadequate services, hazardous facilities, lack of access to activities, improper employee conduct, mismanagement of funds and other violations, PPS intentionally retaliated against her.

The fact that Dr. S. went on record with detailed complaints and reports was an important factor in the case, and helped convince the jury that she was indeed being retaliated against by her supervisors and the Portland district, and that the needs and legal rights of the special education students were not being met.

The Verdict

On Friday, November 16, 2001 the jury announced their unanimous verdict in favor of Dr. S.’s claims. She was awarded $1 million, and defendants Winthrop and Crebo were each ordered to pay $50,000. After the trial, jury foreman Neil Moeller told the Portland Oregonian:

"The big issue was the handicapped kids and the schools not being able to accommodate the situations for teaching handicapped kids. That's what the Rehabilitation Act is all about. We wanted to send a statement back that they were not invincible."

Dr. S. told the press that this has been the "most heart-wrenching and hellish experience of my life," but that my children "want to learn PE, they love it, they want to be athletes, they want to learn, they are teachable, and that was not the problem."
In her view, the problem was the system that viewed children with disabilities as second-class citizens.

The Appeal

After a U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge set the award aside, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a detailed decision http://www.wrightslaw.com/law/caselaw/04/9th.settlegoode.portland.htm reinstating the jury verdict. The Court discussed the importance of Settlegoode's freedom of speech:

“Not only were Settlegoode’s core First Amendment rights implicated, but her speech may have had important effects for the disabled students in the district and their parents. Teachers are uniquely situated to know whether students are receiving the type of attention and education that they deserve and, in this case, are federally entitled to. We have long recognized “the importance of allowing teachers to speak out on school matters,” Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 162 (1983), because “ ‘[t]eachers are, as a class, the members of a community most likely to have informed and definite opinions’ “ on such matters, id. (quoting Pickering, 391 U.S. at 572). This is particularly so with respect to disabled children, who may not be able to communicate effectively that they lack appropriate facilities. Teachers may therefore be the only guardians of these children’s rights and interests during the school day. Whether or not Settlegoode’s assertions were accurate, or were communicated in the best manner possible, it is clear that the subject matter of her expression was of public importance."

The Ripple Effect

Settlegoode’s attorney had asked the jury to not just do justice, but to "send a message." Give "some breathing room to those (special educators) who want to make things better, to those who want to be advocates for kids . . . "

Clearly, a message was sent—a very costly message—to Portland City Schools, and to school education administrators Credo and Winthrop and beyond. Prominent special education attorney, Gary Mayerson, predicted the case would "send shock waves" through the special education community, and it has.

Special education teachers who are being oppressed by their districts for standing up for their students now have legal precedence on their side. Dr. Settlegoode's actions and the U. S. Court of Appeals decision will reverberate for years to come.

To Pamella, her husband, and her attorneys: We thank you for your efforts on behalf of our children, and on behalf of the special educators who put their jobs on the line to advocate for their students.