American Renaissance

Kent Schools Face New Claims of Racism

But not all students agree with allegations made against guards

Gregory Roberts And Kery Murakami, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Mar. 17

KENT — The Kent School District is guilty of “institutional racism at its finest” in its use of excessive force to discipline black students, a local NAACP leader said yesterday.

But students in Kent don’t necessarily see it that way — even as claims mount against the district and its security guards.

Carl Mack, president of the Seattle chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called a news conference to announce that the families of eight boys and girls were filing a total of $26.4 million in claims for incidents involving hair-pulling, arm-twisting, handcuffing and other physical force applied by guards.

“They want to say ‘leave no child behind,’ except in this case, it’s ‘beat our child’s behind,’ “ Mack said.

The latest charges will be added to the $10 million in claims filed earlier this month by the families of three black girls in the district, and Mack said more claims likely will be forthcoming.

“The district showed absolutely no concern, no care for our children,” Mack said.

At the McDonald’s across the street from Kent-Meridian High School yesterday, black students expressed no deep admiration for the school’s security guards: They called them “rent-a-cops” who try to pull students into the principal’s office to impress the boss.

“They like to show they’re in control,” Deshawn Lynn, 17, said.

But he didn’t see the disciplinary incident at the center of a complaint by a student at his school as racially motivated: “It was a black security guard,” he said.

Nick Lalicata, 18, a white junior at Kent-Meridian, said, “The guards really aren’t trying to get you into trouble. They step in if they have to, like if there’s fights or drugs. But if you’re just sitting there cursing at a friend, they won’t do anything.”

And Kayla Creitz, 14, a white student at Meridian Junior High, said the whole controversy is “dumb.” The security guard accused at her school “is really nice,” she said.

Kent Superintendent Barbara Grohe said nearly all of the incidents cited by Mack yesterday had been reviewed previously by school administrators.

“We think, based on what we know now, that the security guards responded to the level of behavior in which they were intervening,” she said.

But she said she did not know immediately if any guards were disciplined as a result of those investigations.

Grohe said she plans to arrange for an independent investigator to examine the incidents, the administrative response and the district’s policies on race and ethnicity.

“I take all this very seriously,” she said. “If these parents are concerned, that’s a concern for me.”

Black students make up 10 percent of the district’s increasingly diverse enrollment. Kent counts more native languages among its 27,000 students than any other district in the state.

Mack said the disciplinary incidents reflect the inability of Kent school administrators to cope with the changing demographics.

But Grohe said, “While I believe these are very serious and urgent matters, I think it is unfair to characterize them as the district’s response to diversity issues in our community.

“I will not allow us to be characterized as unfeeling and uncaring, because that is simply not true.”

Representatives of the NAACP and the school district have scheduled a meeting for March 24.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson met with Mack, parents and others Saturday at Mack’s home in South King County to discuss the Kent situation.

“People that were there were very sincere and very concerned about the larger picture of what’s happening to kids who are struggling academically,” Bergeson said yesterday.

“Are they really getting respected in school? Are their needs being attended to? Are the districts willing to take seriously the concerns that the kids are bringing forward?”

As for Kent administrators, she said, “I don’t know if they’ve been able to stand back as a district and take a look at all the policies they’ve put together, and all the training they’ve done, and say, ‘What’s it all add up to?’”

About 200 parents and others from several school districts descended on Bergeson’s headquarters in Olympia Monday to protest disproportionately harsh discipline for students of color, a spokeswoman for the superintendent’s office said.

Mack said the NAACP hopes to use Kent as a case study for how to attack the disproportionality issue in other school districts.

The district has 60 days to respond to the claims, after which the NAACP may file a federal lawsuit if the response is not satisfactory, Mack said.

He is seeking compensation for the families involved and a systemwide change in attitude in Kent.

Mack said physical restraint may well be justified in some cases of school discipline, but not in the incidents raised in the claims against the district.

The latest claims involve students from 11 to 16 at five schools: Kent-Meridian Senior High; Meeker, Meridian and Northwood junior high schools; and Fairwood Elementary. The first incident cited occurred in April 2002; the latest, last month.

In June 2003, Jailanna Leonard, 15, was told by a security guard at Meridian Junior High to change her T-shirt, which was imprinted with the slogan “Down With Bush,” her complaint said. She refused and went to a school office with the guard, who slammed her into a door and twisted her arm behind her back, the complaint said.

“It hurt really bad and felt like my arm was going to pop our of my socket,” Jailanna said at the news conference.

District policy bars students from wearing clothing that could be distracting or disruptive, Grohe said — but she said she did not know if that policy was at play in Jailanna’s case.

Some of the other incidents concerned students in fights, or suspected of drug use, or who otherwise got crosswise with security guards. Some of the guards involved are white and some are black.

“We understand that not all white folks are our enemies,” Mack said, “but not all black folks are our friends.”

Grohe said school attorneys are determining what information administrators can release on the incidents in light of laws protecting the confidentiality of student records.

“One of the things we need to be careful of here is that the student conduct to which we are responding is being underdescribed, and the response of the district is being overexaggerated,” she said.