Oregon Paper Finds School Board Overlooked Sex-Abuse Allegations

By: (AP) Officials at the Salem-Keizer School District in Oregon were told years ago about a band teacher suspected of inappropriate behavior with female students, according to the Statesman Journal in Salem.

The Salem newspaper obtained documents that showed parents had concerns at least four years before Houck Middle School teacher Joe Billera was arrested last October and charged with sex abuse.

Billera, 30, recently pleaded guilty to sexually abusing four former students, beginning a few months after he was hired in 1997. He also admitted having sex with at least one of the girls. Sentencing is set for Wednesday. He resigned from his job Jan. 6.

The school district, however, never placed Billera on leave, never hired an independent investigator and never reported the complaints to the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission -- all standard procedure when a teacher is accused of serious misconduct, according to the newspaper.

Billera was disciplined after one flurry of complaints in fall 2001. District officials said that teacher privacy rules prevent them from disclosing the discipline, but it did not involve any time away from the classroom.

Some parents told the Statesman Journal their concerns were ignored or mishandled and they fault the district for failing to piece together what now appears to be a pattern of inappropriate behavior.

"They were overlooking it because he was such a good teacher," parent Tim Haburn said. "This has been going on for years."

The Statesman Journal filed an appeal of a school district decision not to disclose details of complaints against Billera.

Citing Oregon public records law, Marion County District Attorney Walt Beglau ordered the district to make some of the documents public.

A review of the documents, along with interviews, showed that a number of parents complained about an incident in late 2000, when a 13-year-old student was sitting on Billera's lap, with a blanket wrapped around the pair, at a school sporting event.

A year later, in notes of a telephone conversation with a concerned parent, then-employee relations director George Gray wrote, "I told [the parent] that the matter had been investigated; that it is not appropriate for student to sit on teacher's lap."

However, the district has no other record of the complaints or of any investigation, said Joe Weiss, the district's human resources director.

The district disciplined Billera in late 2001 after several students said he had threatened them for gossiping about his close relationship with the same 13-year-old girl.

In a written complaint to former Houck Middle School Principal Pat Mack, Robert Ogan, the parent of one of the threatened students, said he thought that the gossip was based on fact.

The documents show that Ogan also discussed his concerns with Gray, Superintendent Kay Baker, and Mark Davalos, who then was assistant director of secondary education.

Davalos and Gray no longer work for the district. Mack, who retired in 2003, could not be reached for comment.

Baker wrote a letter to Ogan saying that she had referred his concerns to Weiss.

But Weiss said that no one at the district had knowledge police were investigating Billera until after he was arrested.

Billera was director of the award-winning Houck band program for seven years, developing one of the largest and best middle school band programs in the state. He also was assistant director of the North High band program, and assisted with McNary's band program.

Billera won the Crystal Apple Award for teaching excellence in 2001 and was chosen as the 2002 Music Educator of the Year by the Oregon Symphony Association of Salem.

He worked for the University of Oregon School of Music band camp for grades eight through 12, serving as recreation and housing director.

Billera has been married for five years, with a young son and another child on the way.

Billera has been in jail since his arrest Oct. 29. He initially was on suicide watch, and at his request currently is in protective custody, meaning that he is isolated from other inmates.

In late December, under a plea agreement, Billera admitted to 10 of the 15 charges in exchange for a sentence of six to 12 years. The maximum sentence is 53 years.

Deputy District Attorney Darin Tweedt said he will try to persuade the judge to impose a longer sentence. If the judge agrees, Billera could choose to change his plea and request a trial.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here