Current and former students are perplexed as the district shares no details
Two Eugene School District teachers are on paid leave following a June overnight school camping field trip, leaving some students outraged and the public with more questions than answers about the incident, which could result in the dismissal of both employees.
Ray Cole and Steve Connelly, who teach outdoor leadership, natural resources and other classes at Early College and Career Options High School, did not return to their jobs at the district’s alternative high school when the 2018-19 school year began earlier this month. The outdoor programs, also known as Oregon Leadership Academy or OLA, are career technical education courses.
District spokeswoman Kerry Delf said the district “does not comment on ongoing investigations,” but that the “personnel matter is not a criminal investigation.”
“We’re looking into concerns that arose following a camping trip in June,” she said.
Delf wouldn’t comment specifically on what or who the district is investigating, except to say student safety and well-being is a “top priority, whether at school or on school-sponsored trips.”
“We hold a high standard for student behavior and supervision at all times,” she said.
The district has not released details of what happened during the June camping trip at Paradise Campgrounds near Blue River. There are no indications the teachers are under investigation by any entity other than the school district.
Efforts to reach Cole and Connelly for comment were unsuccessful. Cole did not respond to multiple emails or Facebook messages and Connelly also did not respond to emails asking for comment.
Exactly what type of leave the teachers are on is unclear as the district does not provide information considered to be part of a personnel record. Teachers and other licensed employees, under their current union contract, can go on paid medical leave, administrative leave, maternity leave, military leave, personal leave, sick leave and leave without pay, among other reasons.
Whether Cole and Connelly were placed on leave or voluntarily went on leave has not been made clear by district officials, but the teachers could be permanently dismissed from their jobs pending results from the district’s investigation, according to Tad Shannon, the president of the district’s teacher’s union.
“Dismissal is always an option for any employee, anyone can be dismissed by the district after an investigation,” Shannon said. “It would be our hope that they would be able to return to work.”
While the district conducts its investigation, students and the school have expressed their concern about the potential outcome and whether their teachers will return.
Several current and former students from the school, also known as ECCO, are upset by the change, which they highlighted at a Sept. 5 public school board meeting. Seven students offered their testimony, mostly to express their gratitude for the educators and their dismay at their teachers’ absence from the school.
Rose Strange, a former ECCO student who graduated last school year, urged the district to consider her and other students’ testimony when it decides whether to permanently dismiss the teachers.
“The impact that Steve and Ray had on their students is not just of learning curriculum, but one that has made us all more confident, outspoken and given us a stronger sense of purpose,” Strange said. “Steve and Ray have not only given students skills that will help them outside of school in terms of emotional support but also through always having a practical application of their lessons and by aiding students in getting certifications.”
Other students, who did not provide their last names at the meeting, offered anecdotes about how the teachers connected with students. Some described Connelly and Cole as “the only reason students came to school.”
Conon Rain, a graduate of the high school and current Lane Community College student, said she never thought she would receive her GED or attend college.
“I dropped out of high school when I was 16 years old and in my first trimester of my pregnancy with my now 3-year-old son, Jasper,” Rain said. “When I moved back to Oregon and called the 4J school district, I was 18 years old. I didn’t know what to do with my life, and I said, ‘I want to graduate,’ and they directed me to ECCO.”
Rain said Cole and Connelly’s class inspired her to stay at school during the day and not skip classes.
“I was a teen parent and I was homeless when I went to ECCO,” Rain said. “They understood when we didn’t have our assignments, and they helped us get through what we needed to get through. They pushed us to strive, they pushed to make classes interesting … . It was the last class of the day, it was really easy to want to leave early to get out of there, but they made it interesting, they took us on hikes, they showed us what was going on and they taught us life skills that we would probably never have if we hadn’t met them.”
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