PORTLAND -- A candid conversation between a student teacher and a 4th grader about gay marriage led to his abrupt dismissal from the Beaverton School District.
Seth Stambaugh, a student teacher at Sexton Mountain elementary school, was apparently dismissed after answering a fourth grader's question about his marital status by saying it would be illegal for him to marry because he would choose to marry a man.
The controversy has led to denials of anti-gay discrimination by the district, the student teacher scrambling to meet academic requirements, a lawyer weighing options for a lawsuit, and a graduate education program using the incident as a teachable moment.
Stambaugh is in the Master of Education program at Lewis and Clark College. At the start of the current school year, he and his colleagues all started student teaching in area schools as part of the practicum portion of their education.
Stambaugh was paired with a teacher in a fourth-grade class at Sexton Mountain school in the Beaverton District. The story was first reported in the Portland Mercury newspaper and the account of what happened was confirmed by Stambaugh's lawyer Lake Perriguey.
There were two complaints filed against Stambaugh, according to Perriguey.
The father of a student reportedly complained that Stambaugh had dressed inappropriately. Stambaugh was wearing pressed slacks, an oxford-style shirt and his grandfather's cardigan. The complaint was dismissed by the school, according to Perriguey..
The second complaint came after a conversation Stambaugh had with a student.
He was leading a writing lesson when a fourth-grader asked him if he was married. Stambaugh said no. The student then asked why. Stambaugh replied that it would be illegal for him to get married because he would be choosing to marry another man. The student then asked if Stambaugh hanged out with guys and he said yes.
On Sept. 15, the school district informed Lewis and Clark that Stambaugh would not be allowed back as a student teacher at the school. Stambaugh said that he was only told his comments were "inappropriate."
Stambaugh could not be reached directly for this story.
"There's no factual dispute about what happened," he told the Mercury. "The question is whether we tolerate what happened in this state and this culture."
Beaverton School District spokeswoman Maureen Wheeler said that the district honors diversity, including sexual orientation. Wheeler said she could not talk specifically about the conversation, but noted it took place with "a fourth-grader, and that's a nine-year-old."
"We do not discriminate," she said. The district has gay and lesbian employees and high school clubs that promote diversity, including sexual orientation, she said.
Stambaugh, she pointed out, was one of anywhere from 250 to 350 student teachers who come into the district every school year.
Administrators at Lewis and Clark say usual academic protocols were not followed in this case.
Bad fits are not that unusual between student teachers and a district, said Lewis and Clark spokeswoman Jodi Heintz. They happen all the time. What also happens before such a move is a discussion between the district, college officials and the student teacher, and that never happened in the Stambaugh case, she said.
It's a relationship that is carefully forged as master's candidates start to prepare for their student teaching practicum, she said. Students create profiles of themselves and their career goals that are studied by districts and individual, veteran teachers who then help choose their new student teacher.
Heintz provided a record of the exchange between college officials and district over Stambaugh's dismissal. It involved one phone conversation the evening of Sept. 13 with Sexton Mountain Principal Don Martin, an exchange of emails and voicemails the next day with district officials and on the 15th a voicemail telling Lewis and Clark that Stambaugh was out.
Stambaugh's removal from the Sexton Mountain classroom, Heintz said, "was a decision that was made, and told to us."
Lawyer Perriguey said the abrupt change placed his client's academic studies in peril, and now possibly his professional career. For one thing, he fell behind the other master's candidates because the practicum creates the homework that's needed to complete the degree.
Heintz said Stambaugh has been able to continue his practicum in the Portland school district in order to complete degree requirements.
Beaverton spokeswoman Wheeler said the incident was not lost on the district's gay and lesbian employees, who were not shy about asking "what about us?"
Wheeler said they were told that specifics of the Stambaugh case could not be discussed, and that they the are loved and welcomed. "We respect and value you as employees," was the message, Wheeler said.
The Stambaugh case has been the talk of the graduate education program, Heintz said. The episode may be integrated into the curriculum, she said, and a open forum was held by students to talk about the case.
Education School Dean Scott Fletcher said Lewis and Clark already includes help for gay and lesbian students.
"At the Graduate School, we are committed to preparing our GLBT interns on how to navigate this complex terrain," Fletcher said, "just as we work closely with school officials to help them become more sensitive in their handling of these issues with their constituents."
Heintz said student teachers learn that a classroom is a workplace, and questions must be answered deftly, like "Do you have tattoos? Do you drink? Have you ever been drunk?"
And lawyer Perriguey says Seth Stambaugh is entitled to transparent explanations from the Beaverton School District for him trying to respond honestly to queries that essentially asked the question, are you gay?