By Xuan You Lim, UW News Lab/Special to CHS
Seattle Public Schools offered apologies and some new promises at a community hearing event last week following KUOW’s investigation that revealed the district’s failure to remove abusive teachers from schools.
Earlier, KUOW reported that a math teacher at Capitol Hill’s Meany Middle School, James Johnson, called an eighth grader the n-word and punched him in the jaw. Not long after the incident, according to KUOW’s reporting, Johnson was transferred to the Central District’s Washington Middle School where the principal allegedly knew about Johnson’s misconduct before approving his transfer.
Johnson has since been placed on administrative leave pending ongoing investigations, according to KUOW.
The incidents — and the responses from officials — have left many questioning the district’s handling of incidents of abuse and its treatment of Central Seattle schools.
More than 100 parents, students and community leaders filled the seats in Quincy Jones Performing Center at Garfield High School for the community “listen and learn” event Thursday night where Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau, Chief Human Resources Officer Clover Codd, and Seattle School Board Directors Brandon Hersey and Zachary DeWolf listened to public comment. Approximately 40 people gave comments at the event in a rapid fire series of two minute time-limited sessions at the microphones.
Parents voiced their concerns about the wellbeing of the students in Johnson’s class who witnessed or experienced abuse. Many asked for counseling and support services for the students.
Mike Leitner, a parent of a senior at Garfield High School, read from his phone to put across his daughter’s request for counseling services to be offered to the students involved in Johnson’s class.
“Listen to the kids,” Leitner implored which was followed by applause.
Many called for accountability from the district and demanded apologies and answers from the four leadership on stage.
“I want to know why Mr. Johnson was so willingly brought into the school when you knew that we will be in danger,” a sixth grader who was in Johnson’s class at Washington Middle School asked. “Next year we will be seventh graders and I want to know how we’re supposed to know that you will commit to getting us good teachers with the TAF program coming in.”
CHS reported earlier this year on the Technology Access Foundation, a science and engineering-focused school program, that was approved by the Seattle School Board to help run Washington Middle School starting next year.
Parents criticized the communication they received from the district after KUOW’s exposé on the teacher’s actions and voiced their disappointment with the district’s handling of the events.
“I’ve been in the school system for six years now and the amount of advocacy I had to do for my kids is insane,” Sharon Khosla, a parent with two children in the Seattle Public Schools system, one of whom was in Johnson’s class, said. “It has been four weeks. I have been to four different meetings, this is the fifth meeting, this is the first time I’m seeing people who should be accountable.”
“Take care of them, take care of those kids in Mr. Johnson’s class,” Khosla urged.
Some pointed fingers at the principal of Washington Middle School, Katrina Hunt, and questioned her absence at the event. Others pushed for changes to leadership personnel in the district. According to parents involved with the school’s PTA, a union representative for Hunt has promised a meeting with the principal will follow last week’s session.
For most of the duration of last week’s event, the four leadership members from the district sat on stools, listening and nodding while jotting down notes as the attendants shared their testimony.
At the end of the sharing, Juneau apologized and made commitments to do better.
“We will commit to do better by this committee, by the school system, by the teachers, by leadership, by our families and our students,” Juneau said. “We will be better at communication. We will do better at figuring out recording systems. We will do a reset of expectations.”
Codd, Hersey and DeWolf also apologized and responded to what the community had shared.
“All I’m going to say is we really messed up and I’m sorry for the harm cost to your students, to your young person,” DeWolf, who represents District V which includes the area of Capitol Hill, downtown and the Central District on the school board, said.
DeWolf said the district will make sure “communications are authentic and real” and will commit to bringing counselors into the schools involved. DeWolf also acknowledged that the district should be “really rapid responding to these incidents.”
“We need to uncover what else is there because it’s not just about this one teacher or this one school,” Hersey added.
A transcript of the event and a report on a plan of action will be released on March 9 by the Audit and Finance committee of the Seattle School Board, according to DeWolf.
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