Educator Saff Evans speaks to the Philomath School Board Thursday night about female teachers and staff who said they have had experiences that have created an unsafe working environment. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Sitting before the Philomath School Board Thursday evening during the public comments portion of the meeting, four educators one after the other painted a picture of a common theme among the district’s female teachers and staff members — feelings of “fear, frustration and exhaustion.”

No names were thrown out and no specific incidents were shared but those who spoke wanted the board to know that the issue exists and asked for their help to find solutions to improve the on-campus work culture.

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Saff Evans, a special education teacher who heads up the Life Skills program, said she was speaking to not complain about any one individual or policy but to give a voice to a number of colleagues who did not feel safe speaking out.

“These colleagues, who I care very much about, have felt the sting of hostility and harassment directed at them because of their gender,” Evans said. “Their feelings are very real and their concerns are very real and they want us to do better.”

Evans wants to see Philomath go through the type of change that’s been seen elsewhere.

“Institutions around the country have been grappling with this issue,” she said. “We have known this recently as the #MeToo movement. I believe the Philomath School District is having a #MeToo movement right now.”

Before Evans took a seat at the table, School Board Chair Rick Wells had gone through the public comment guidelines. Glancing at the subject matter of the first public speaker that had been written down on an index card that must be filled out to speak, Wells stated, “This one deals with the kind of a topic that can get sideways real quick. There’ll be no mention of names specifically in any of the comments as it pertains to staff. I think everybody understands so we’ll go forward with that.”

Everybody adhered to the request with no names mentioned.

“I think there’s been a couple of instances where we need to be thoughtful about how people are treated and some history that we need to work through,” Superintendent of Schools Susan Halliday said following the meeting. “I think that trust issues and fear run deep in some places and so it’s really about trying to be able to address and listen and work through some of those issues and concerns and keep moving us forward in a fairer way.”

Kirsten Davis, Clemens Primary School speech pathologist, told the board that a “fairly sizable group of female colleagues” have experienced a hostile work environment.

“While some of these colleagues do not feel safe enough to return to work, others who have returned are still dealing with trauma and exhaustion caused by their experiences,” Davis said.

Philomath Middle School teacher Greg Hudson said the district has a history of being highly regarded but asked the board to absorb what they were hearing.

“We put out great students, we have strong staff and we’ve lost staff, and we would just like to acknowledge that we realize that our district, like other institutions, has this kind of behavior going on,” Hudson said.

Nancy Thompson, middle school teacher, asked the board to be advocates for change.

“Please know this is a real issue — this is ongoing and you may think that it’s coming from just a few people but it’s not,” Thompson said. “It’s not what we want to emulate to our kids. … Our students know these issues are here and when they see nothing done about it, what do we do?”

Evans asked the board to avoid a backslide and do the right thing to keep moving forward to bring a safe environment to teachers and staff.

“We have come so far as a district and I absolutely recognize that we have operated an awesome district and produced amazing outcomes for our students,” she said. “We, like almost any other institution in this country, have harbored pockets of our program that have enabled sexual harassment and hostility and this needs to stop.”

Protocol calls for the board to listen to public comments with no responses at that point of the meeting. The five board members didn’t say much through the rest of the meeting on the topic other than Erin Gudge throwing out an idea to try to get a conversation going.

“In light of the many comments that happened this evening, I would like to request that we begin planning … a series of listening sessions where there might be a board member, maybe two, and others to create an environment of safety for our staff members,” Gudge said toward the end of the meeting when board members are free to make miscellaneous requests.

Wells suggested a more relaxed atmosphere for a gathering as opposed to a structured meeting.

Said one teacher from the audience, “If you walk in the door, they will talk to you.”

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.