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'She did what she had to do.' A school board finalist reckons with a complicated past

On Thursday morning last week, a mom asked Emijah Smith for help.

“She called me out of the blue, an East African mother, wants support in getting her daughter’s class schedule set up,” Smith said. “I know that she needs a connection to an administrator, and they should be able to help her out.”

Smith intended to go to the daughter's middle school to help, which isn't unusual for Smith. Her face brightens when she talks about these situations, which is partly why she is one of three finalists vying to fill a Seattle School Board vacancy.

She is reluctant, however, to talk about the situation that unfolded on her porch on December 14, 2012, which garnered her an assault conviction, since dismissed.

Hours after the mother called on Thursday, Smith met with me at Station Café on Beacon Hill to talk about that day in 2012, and the fallout.

Smith is a daughter of Seattle’s Central District, passionate about social justice and education reform, a fierce advocate for black boys in particular.

Sitting at a corner table at the café, though, she looked worn out. She had stayed up late the night before to participate in a candidate forum at Rainier Beach High School, and this airing of her past was causing stress.

Smith's resume and community connections make her a leading contender for Betty Patu’s old seat on the board.

As a child, she tested into the advanced learning program, and she later attended Garfield High School and got a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Washington. She’s currently the community engagement manager at the Children’s Alliance, a nonprofit that lobbies for children’s issues in the legislature.

But whispers about Smith's arrest seven years ago have dogged her campaign.

Alluding to rumors, Smith wrote the board a letter. Board members, in interviews and on background, seemed assuaged. And the district’s legal counsel told them Smith could serve.

This raises questions about how to evaluate a candidate with a complicated past, because to rely solely on the police report wouldn’t give a full account. It also raises questions about transparency expected in the public process when someone runs for office.

Smith doesn’t dispute what happened on that winter morning, 11 days before Christmas.

The police report describes a young woman, age 20, going to Smith’s house to serve Smith’s family member with a restraining order. It was a cloudy day, 43 degrees, and the woman wore a scarf and a coat.

Smith said she recognized the woman at her door; she had seen her in court. In court, the woman appeared to be dating a convicted pimp who had terrorized Smith’s family member the year before.

Restraining orders are usually delivered by law enforcement – precisely to avoid the events that went down that day.

In a report, the police detective wrote :

Smith retrieved a metal baseball bat and grabbed the woman by the scarf, and hit the woman five to six times on one leg. Smith used the scarf to drag her back and forth on the porch and then blocked way off the porch and told the woman she couldn’t go unless she stripped naked.

When police officers arrived, they saw Smith standing over the young woman, who, they said, “was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the front porch.”

The woman was shaking and crying and looked up at the officer and cried, “Please help me.”

Her coat, shoes, and one sock were off.

The young woman declined offers of medical attention, and walked away.

She declined to speak with KUOW.

Smith was charged with felony assault, with a deadly weapon enhancement for the metal bat. She ultimately pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, misdemeanor assault. Prosecutors we spoke with reasoned that she was a 40-year-old woman with no violent history, and sending her to prison would have upended her life.

The charges were dismissed after Smith completed her probation.

On Thursday at the café, Smith said the police report was accurate, but that she was defending her family. Human responses to violence are fight, flight, or freeze, she said, and she fought.

This man had threatened Smith and her family member, Smith said, and his criminal record indicated that he had made good on previous threats against women.

“I’m not going to think you’re just kidding when you make these threats,” Smith said. That time in her life was about survival, she said. Smith said she was sleep-deprived and scared the man would harm her relative again.

“That’s a space of watching your house, checking your house before you walk in the door,” Smith said, “reassuring your family every time you go to bed.”

When this young woman showed up on her porch, Smith said she acted out of fear. She believed the man might be nearby, and she was right — he was a five-minute walk away at an ampm, calling 911, asking them to check on his “girlfriend” at Smith’s house. Prosecutors said they wondered if he had engineered this toxic encounter.

“I wish I could take that part of my life and erase it, but I’m not able to do that right now,” Smith said.

Does she wish she had responded differently?

She bristled at the question.

“How do you rationalize how to respond to safety and fear?” she asked. “How are you supposed to react? Is there a proper way?”

Until that day, she had done what the legal system demanded of her, she said.

“I put out the restraining orders,” she said. “I never went out looking for anyone, I never called or harassed anybody. I never went to, or approached, violence; it came and found me.”

She protected her family, she said, because that’s her responsibility as a mother.

Leslie Harris, president of the school board, and a former paralegal, said every story has “15 facets to it.”

“We have nothing but respect or affection for Emijah and her exceptional work,” she said.

When asked if she had read the police report, Harris paused, and said, “I’m not going there.”

The letter Smith wrote to the school board, obtained through a public records request, doesn’t delve into details of that winter morning.

“Dangerous adults came onto my property, my home, unannounced, trying to harm my family,” she wrote. “First, I am a mother who loves my children. Second, it’s my responsibility to protect the safety of the children and my home.”

Read Emijah Smith's letter to the Seattle School board:

Smith’s letter continued: “Despite the fact that a protection order was in place to protect my family and home, and the fact that I called the police in advance of the situation, I was arrested. This incident resulted in a misdemeanor that was dismissed over five years ago.”

Smith’s letter said this incident gave her “deeper sensitivity and insight into the impacts of sexual assault and domestic violence on Seattle Public Schools students and families.”

I presented Smith’s case to a social worker who said the fight response is real, and often triggered by fear. She said that Smith's lack of contrition gave her pause.

But the social worker, Christiann Stapf, said she also considered what a homeowner must do when violence comes knocking.

“You know that if you don't do anything — if you ignore it — well that's just an invitation for it to just keep coming at you,” she said by email.

“Aggressors are like that,” she said. “They don't care about the criminal justice system. They don't care about court orders or boundaries or legal repercussions of any kind.”

Stapf continued: “The legal system is more likely to fail you than not, especially if you are a woman of color,” she said. “So, she did what she had to do.”

KUOW checked the backgrounds of the nine candidates for school board, including for this position. Only Smith’s case surfaced.

The Seattle School Board decides Wednesday who will fill the vacant spot. That person will be sworn in the same day.

Editor's note: We have removed our lead image after careful consideration and feedback from readers.