When Isabelle was in her junior year of high school at Catlin Gabel, an elite private day school in Portland, Oregon, sports were her life. “It was the thing that kept me happy, and it was a huge goal of mine to keep it going moving forward in my life,” says Isabelle, now 24, who asked that her name be changed to protect her privacy. Despite struggling with depression, self-harm, and an eating disorder, soccer “was one of the healthier outlets I had in my life,” and she had every intention of playing at a Division I school after she graduated.
Then Isabelle met her track coach, Deonte Huff. He was a former college athlete, energetic, charming, and popular among students. “All the girl students thought he was cute,” Isabelle tells Rolling Stone. Isabelle and Huff grew close during practices, and they’d text into the night, with her confiding in him about her mental-health issues, she says. In the spring of 2013, when she was having a particularly rough time, he invited her to his apartment to play Mario Kart. It was there that, Isabelle alleges, he first sexually abused her. “Afterward I just remember being very checked out mentally,” she says.
Huff sexually abused Isabelle on a number of occasions, according to a 2013 criminal indictment, which she says continued until her parents discovered she was at his house after tracking the GPS on her phone. He was later arrested and pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual abuse, with police later finding that he had nude photos of other Catlin Gabel students. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail.
Like most survivors of sexual abuse, Isabelle struggled to come to terms with what Huff had done to her. But the nightmare for her at Catlin was just getting started. She says students blamed her for having gotten Huff fired, while faculty members outright ignored her. She came up with a plan for taking her own life and had to check into an in-patient treatment facility.
The day she left the in-treatment facility, she says, her parents told her she was no longer welcome at Catlin. The reason they were given, according to Isabelle’s parents, was that she had violated school code by going off-campus — which was in the context of her abuse at Huff’s house. “I essentially took that as a message as another note of responsibility on myself, that my actions were so damaging that they got me kicked out of school,” she remembers.
According to a new lawsuit brought by Isabelle, Isabelle’s treatment at Catlin Gabel was part of a larger, systemic pattern of abuse at the school. Catlin Gabel is regularly ranked among the best schools in the state, and its alumni include Academy Award-winning directors, diplomats, and tech-startup CEOs. Perhaps most importantly, Catlin Gabel is known as a progressive institution, one that prides itself on fostering hands-on learning experiences and close student-teacher relationships.
It’s this culture that Isabelle’s attorney Peter Janci alleges helped cultivate a climate of inappropriate relationships between students and teachers, allowing predators within the community, like Huff, to escape notice. “You have a school that prides itself on giving special educational experiences, whether that’s taking kids off-site more often and having kids at faculty’s homes more often. The experience extends beyond campus boundaries, beyond normal educational hours,” he says. “Those are well-known to be vulnerable situations when you’re trying to prevent sexual abuse by trusted adults.”
Over the past few years, faculty and staff at Catlin Gabel have been hit with more than a dozen lawsuits related to child sex abuse, which date back at least 40 years and as recently as 2014. In response to public Facebook posts alleging sexual misconduct, the school conducted an internal investigation, publishing the results in the winter of 2019. The report found that the school allegedly employed at least 21 accused predators over the past 40 years, seven of whom are explicitly named, with administration officials in many cases failing to report suspected predators to the police. The allegations made local headlines, though they were largely missed by the national media.
One of the alleged perpetrators, former sixth-grade teacher Richardson Shoemaker, was accused by 23 female students of inappropriate touching and groping, according to the investigation. Despite some of the students reporting the abuse to teachers at the school, Shoemaker was employed there until 2000, when the school learned Shoemaker was being investigated by the sheriff’s office on a historical sexual abuse charge not related to a Catlin student. Shoemaker resigned in 2001. (According to the internal report, the sheriff’s office “apparently closed” the investigation because it was outside the statute of limitations; Shoemaker died in 2018.)
Since the results of the internal investigation were released, 16 former students have filed lawsuits against the school, claiming they were sexually abused by faculty members while being students there.
The allegations have thrown the tight-knit alumni community into tumult, with many former and current students and parents refusing to acknowledge the extent of the alleged abuse, says Janci. “We’ve seen people commenting this is a good institution, these are a few bad apples, that the people who are in charge aren’t there anymore,” he says. “To have potentially 21 staff members engaging in sexual misconduct with kids … lasting into 40 years at least — that’s a systemic problem.”
In the local media, Catlin Gabel has maintained that it has been rigorous in conducting an independent investigation into the allegations, many of which were about conduct alleged to have happened decades ago. In a statement to Rolling Stone, Ken Dubois, director of public relations for the school, said, “Catlin Gabel School’s highest priority is the safety and well-being of its students and school community members. Catlin Gabel is committed to fostering an educational environment in which students feel safe, and are free of misconduct and harassment in all forms.”
Dubois added that immediately after learning Huff was engaged in sexual misconduct with a student, the school alerted the Washington County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) and “promptly terminated” Huff’s employment. He says that due to student privacy laws “and potential litigation,” the school couldn’t comment further .
Yet Megan Johnson, co-counsel for the plaintiff in the Catlin Gabel suit and the deputy district attorney on Huff’s case, says the school has been far from cooperative in dealing with authorities. “Never in my career have I encountered a school or other child-related organizations that was as difficult to work with as Catlin Gabel in terms of investigating what was happening within their four walls of their institution,” she says. (“Catlin Gabel fully cooperated with the subsequent criminal investigation and prosecution,” Dubois says.) In 2019, after the story of sexual abuse at Catlin Gabel broke, Johnson says that Washington County had to serve a search warrant to gain access to its records for its investigation.
As alleged in the complaint, the school’s record of sweeping allegations against suspected predators under the rug extended to Huff as well. The suit alleges that prior to Huff’s arrest, eight people filed complaints with Catlin Gabel staff and administrators accusing Huff of “acting inappropriately with minor female students — including flirting with students and engaging in inappropriate boundary violations with students.”
These complaints do not appear in the school’s internal report, which was commissioned by the board of trustees and made public in 2019. (In the report, the investigator states she did not contact Huff because he was sentenced and convicted.) “The culture that allowed this lasted for 40 years,” Janci says. “If this is the first time this is becoming public, what certainty do we have that things have really changed and kids there are safe?”
For her part, Isabelle says, her experience being blamed for her own abuse at Catlin Gabel significantly altered the trajectory of her life. Though she ended up playing soccer at her new school and at the small liberal arts school she later attended, she had a relapse related to her eating disorder. “It really felt like the rug of recovery had been pulled out from beneath me because of my experience at Catlin,” she says. This relapse led to her experiencing health problems that effectively ended her athletic career. “I still very much mourn the path I never got to take, that I’d worked so hard for,” she says. “There’s very much that sense of loss of what I had always envisioned myself as being.”
Learning about the history of sexual abuse complaints against Catlin Gabel faculty, as documented by the internal investigation, as well as the complaints against Huff specifically, made her feel “completely betrayed” that the school had failed to protect her, but also validated in a way. “It led me to realize it wasn’t just me. He didn’t just see me and think, ‘This is my person, this is my chance.’ This was an ongoing issue,” she says. “I just happened to be vulnerable at that specific time. It wasn’t one thing about me or anything bad I did that initiated this behavior.”