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caption: Washington Middle School in Seattle
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Washington Middle School in Seattle
Credit: KUOW/Liz Jones

Seattle parents outraged by teacher abuse revelations, but superintendent remains silent

Seattle parents are calling for Superintendent Denise Juneau to address revelations that the district let abusive teachers return to the classroom, sometimes after multiple incidents of misconduct.

Six days after a KUOW story examined numerous cases of lenient discipline for Seattle teachers who lash out at children, Juneau has remained mum on the issue and the district has responded publicly only through several tweets that shift blame to the teachers union.

“We share these student safety concerns,” the district tweeted in response to the KUOW story.

"We are pushing SEA [Seattle Education Association] to make student safety central to decision making and Supt. Juneau and HR have reset expectations and implemented new protocols,” the district wrote, and linked to what it has termed a “strategic story” about a recent revamping of its human resources department.

Many parents say the district response has been inadequate. And they reject the deflection to the union.

“We demand that the Board and the Superintendent publicly take ownership of this crisis of trust in our public school system,” reads a public letter from parents circulating online. More than 100 parents have signed the letter so far.

In the letter, parents criticize the school board for canceling its regularly-scheduled meeting February 5, which is the district’s main forum for public comment.

On Twitter, the district said there weren’t enough agenda items to hold a meeting.

“To cancel a public meeting days after these revelations represents a complete disconnect from the principles of transparency and accountability,” said the parent letter.

At The Center School, parent Shawna Murphy said she was furious that the district sent teacher James Johnson to work with struggling students there last year. His reassignment came after investigations found he had punched an eighth-grader in the face and sexually harassed girls at Meany Middle School.

“This is a man who was in a room just with my 14-year-old daughter, tutoring her for math,” Murphy told Leslie Harris, a Seattle School Board member, at Harris’s community meeting on Saturday. “It’s absolutely reprehensible and outrageous.”

Murphy said she had demanded a call from Superintendent Denise Juneau, but instead received a call last night from the district’s chief of human resources, Clover Codd, who, she said, tried to assure Murphy that the district is taking steps to prevent future abuse.

Murphy was not satisfied, and said the superintendent herself needs to answer to the public.

“I want her to hold a press conference and some kind of series of listening events. I want her to take responsibility for putting [Johnson] back in the classroom twice after he should have been fired,” Murphy said.

Parents and students are also demanding answers at Washington Middle School, where Johnson was hired to teach this school year, parents and students say he continued to harass, humiliate and abuse kids until he was removed from the classroom Friday in the wake of the news report.

Many dismissed as inadequate a letter Principal Katrina Hunt wrote to families that said “the expectations for employee conduct have been reset and the district has implemented new protocols over the last 18 months.”

Eighteen months ago is roughly when Superintendent Juneau was hired.

[Read KUOW's investigations into teacher misconduct in Seattle and in Kent.]

Hunt said the district was “pushing” the union “to work with us on reforms that put student safety at the center of all decision making.”

Parents, however, said that even this school year, numerous Washington Middle School students had complained to school administration and other staff about Johnson’s behavior to them and their peers, and had felt dismissed.

Students told KUOW that he had poked students, touched them against their will, called them degrading names, and once nagged a girl to remove her hijab.

Johnson was placed on administrative leave Friday, a few hours after Hunt sent her original letter to families. New allegations had surfaced, she said. KUOW has asked the district for details of these allegations.

K.L. Shannon, the vice-president of the Washington Middle School PTSA, said there’s been “complete silence” from school administration since Friday. At a PTSA meeting this week, she said, parents questioned how the principal could have been unaware of Johnson’s background.

“I’m not satisfied. A lot of parents are angry,” Shannon said. She said Johnson had belittled and cursed at her nephew, and felt he especially targeted black boys for abuse.

“How is it that these teachers who have abused children have been allowed to teach in the classroom?”

At Meany Middle School, where Johnson assaulted one of his students and was found to have sexually harassed numerous girls, Principal Chanda Oatis sent a letter nearly identical to Hunt’s on Sunday.

Oatis wrote that parents and students must understand that the district has limited ability to fire teachers, given the union contract and state law.

Education attorneys told KUOW that, while unions must support and provide legal counsel to teachers facing discipline, and ensure due process, contracts still allow districts to fire teachers for serious misconduct.

Unions can, however, establish with districts clear expectations for what is a fireable offense, attorneys said.

Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, took issue with the district’s finger pointing.

"It is disappointing," Wood said, "when districts shift blame or responsibility away from their own decision making onto other groups."

He said that when a teacher is accused of misconduct, unions must make sure that appropriate laws and contract language are followed.

But “in the end, it's the administration itself that is responsible for protecting the safety of everybody at school,” Wood said. “The administrators themselves are the ones who are responsible for decisions regarding discipline of teachers for misconduct."

Superintendent Juneau turned down KUOW's request for an interview.

Several school board members, in their response to last week’s story, took an unequivocal position about district accountability.

Newly-elected Director Lisa Rivera-Smith wrote on Facebook that she expects the district “to take immediate action when staff are accused of abuse, neglect or mistreatment of students. According to Ms. Dornfeld's reporting, this has not reliably been done.”

Rivera-Smith bulleted changes she would like to see:

How the district vets teachers;

How the district could improve handling of complaints;

Ensuring that trauma-investigators handle abuse claims;

Ensuring that investigative findings are properly recorded.

Board President Zachary DeWolf wrote on his Facebook page: “I sincerely apologize for the harm done to students, to families, and our Seattle community.”

At board member Leslie Harris’s community meeting Saturday, she said she was “extraordinarily distressed” about the situation in the district.

"I am giving deep and considerable thought to hiring my own personal counsel,” Harris said, to advise her “as to whether or not I can say more than some folks would like me to.”

At Harris’s meeting, Manuela Slye, president of the Seattle Council PTSA, said her organization has been hearing from many families experiencing misconduct or abuse in the district, often with no action from district staff.

“These are… things that are affecting children in a big way, especially those that are underrepresented,” Slye said. “Some don't have a lot of support at home. Whose parents don't speak the language or don't know the system."

On Facebook, Slye called on families to share experiences (president@scptsa.org) and wrote, “If a school environment and the adults trusted to educate our kids are not safe, what is?”

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KUOW’s reporting has described how the Seattle school district kept two teachers in the classroom for years despite misconduct against children.

Along with Johnson, there was Kevin Schmidt, who, the district found, screamed and swatted at elementary school kids. He was moved to another school, where he is alleged to have pushed and yelled at fifth-graders.

Both are now out of the classroom.

After Schmidt resigned in lieu of termination in 2018, Seattle agreed to delete a record regarding the circumstances of his termination from his personnel file, and he was quickly hired to teach in Tacoma School District.

Schmidt resigned in lieu of termination from Tacoma last year for another incident, then voluntarily surrendered his teaching certificate earlier this month, after KUOW’s reporting spurred a state investigation.

“There is a feeling in the community that SPS is scared of litigation for wrongful firing when they should actually be afraid of families suing for harm caused to their children by abusive teachers,” said parent Shawna Murphy.