A lawsuit filed Friday against education nonprofit Self-Enhancement, Inc. is rippling through school and social service circles, as investigators dig into allegations of sexual impropriety, retaliation and discrimination at a North Portland school.
Self-Enhancement, Inc., or SEI, has been well-regarded for decades, for its work with young people of color in North and Northeast Portland — a historically black part of Oregon’s largest city. But SEI’s reputation is at risk following accusations from Fyndi Jermany, a female staff member.
Jermany’s accusations include inappropriate conversations in front of students at Jefferson High School and a tolerance of romantic relationships between staff and students. Jermany said a graphic video of an SEI manager performing a sex act was circulated among staff, and that sexual horseplay and comments were common at school around and involving students. The complaint accused CEO Tony Hopson of inappropriate overtures toward Jermany, and said that female staff were told to wear “sexy” clothes and flirt with donors at fundraisers to get them to give more money.
Jermany said her efforts to report the problems were stymied by supervisors and human resources, and she was forced to take leave from the school for emotional distress.
SEI initially declined comment Friday, saying it was a legal matter involving a current employee. But by Monday, chief operating officer Libra Forde released a statement, saying, "[W]e deny the allegations in this lawsuit.”
Forde’s statement goes on to say: “These allegations have been investigated multiple times, without corroboration, over a period of several months prior to the filing of this lawsuit.”
Last Friday, Portland Public Schools said officials planned to “immediately begin looking into the allegations made against SEI. We will take any necessary steps to ensure the safety of our students and staff,” said director for strategic communications and outreach Harry Esteve.
Those “necessary steps” turned into a suspension of SEI’s staff from Jefferson High School. At first, school administrators said that it affected all SEI personnel at the historically majority black high school — including the nonprofit’s after-school work funded through Multnomah County’s Schools Uniting Neighborhoods, or SUN, program.
“[W]e have made a decision to temporarily suspend our SEI programs at Jefferson for at least the next week until we can learn more,” Jefferson administrators wrote.
“We hope and expect to know in a week when SEI staff will return to our campus. Students will continue to have access to after-school meals through our SUN [Schools Uniting Neighborhoods] program.”
But by later Monday, PPS officials sent a new message, clarifying that SEI would continue to staff the SUN programs at Jefferson High.
“The suspension does not affect Multnomah County's SUN Community School activities at Jefferson High School, nor does it affect SEI programs at other schools,” PPS officials wrote.
“SEI has been an important partner for Portland Public Schools for several decades, providing critical support services for many of our most underserved students. We will continue to work closely with SEI leadership as we investigate the allegations in the lawsuit."
As a “culturally-specific provider,” SEI has contracts with Multnomah County to run after-school and other student services at 15 schools at multiple school districts.
SUN began its contract with SEI in 2016, as part of a major shift in how the county ran the multimillion-dollar program. County leaders shifted many schools toward “culturally-specific providers” by designating which ethnicity most needed attention at a particular school, and then matching the school with a provider that specializes in that ethnic group.
The decision two years ago to change providers, and bring in culturally specific organizations like SEI was controversial, particularly in high schools.
Multnomah County communications director Julie Sullivan-Springhetti said social services and SUN managers met over the weekend to discuss what to do in light of the lawsuit against SEI.
“These are very serious allegations and first thing Monday, we sent County staff to each of the programs at Jefferson, Roosevelt, David Douglas and Reynolds High Schools and are staying in close communication with the principals, districts and our partners,” Sullivan-Springhetti said in a statement.
So far, county officials are not making any changes to its programs run by the nonprofit. Their reasoning for not making changes mirrors that of Portland Public Schools — that the accusations involve staff who worked with students outside of the SUN program.
“No people named in the lawsuit are part of the Multnomah County SUN Community School at Jefferson, where we provide essential meals and family and student support and we’re continuing to do that,” said Sullivan-Springhetti.
The lawsuit names SEI and its chief executive, Tony Hopson, as defendants, but it also implicates other staff members, including chief operating officer Libra Forde, human resources director Cheri Davis and Jermany's supervisor Troy Hollis.