African-American Family Fights Harassment at Prestigious Bush School
In February, after Bush School third grader Isaiah Barnett got dizzy—and got sick—spinning on playground equipment during recess, word got around that a parent had suggested that Isaiah should be forced to wear a sign reading "Do not feed." His mother, Erica Conway—a thirtysomething single mom—believes the parent's odd remark was meant to belittle Isaiah. Because of this, and similar incidents, Conway says she requested a meeting with several families at Bush. Conway claims the school's headmaster, Frank Magusin, told her a meeting would be "unproductive."
Conway believes the school's cold rebuttal is indicative of class politics. She thinks the school did not want to risk angering the families who bring in tens of thousands of dollars to the school. Tuition at the prestigious, private Bush School ranges from $14,644 to $20,175 per year, and Isaiah has been on scholarship there since he began attending the school in kindergarten. "Do you think Frank [Magusin] wants those kids to leave the school, or the one kid on scholarship?" Conway asks.
Frustrated and worried that her son was being forced out of the school, Conway put in a few calls to the local chapter of the NAACP and King County Council Chairman Larry Gossett—a family friend—looking for help.
James Bible, president of the Seattle chapter of the NAACP, recently visited the school to talk with staff and parents. "We've been investigating the issue," he says. "And we're concerned that he's not being treated equitably and that his identity and rights are [not being] protected."
Gossett has known Isaiah since he was 2 years old, when he met the boy at a Martin Luther King Jr. rally. When Conway contacted Gossett, she told him that Isaiah was being pushed out of Bush. Gossett said he would be willing to help the "single, black mother going up against the tremendous wealth of the parents at Bush." Gossett says that "in light of the fact that [Isaiah] is a very bright, inner-city kid who has flourished [at Bush] and maintained community roots," the school should be "using him as a model to inspire." Gossett told The Stranger that he would be surprised if class and race did not have something to do with the current problem.
Shifting around on an overstuffed couch at his grandmother's Federal Way home, Isaiah—wearing shorts and a white T-shirt—curls up next to Conway as she proudly talks about her son's achievements. The bright, sophisticated, and bouncy 9-year-old recently received the Paul Robeson Award for excelling as both an athlete and a student. And last January, Isaiah was featured in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer after he stood in front of a crowd of over 2,000 people at a rally honoring Martin Luther King Jr., where he passionately recited one of King's speeches.
Despite Isaiah's achievements in and out of school, Conway says her 9-year-old son has been harassed, alienated, and labeled a "predator" by peers and parents at Bush, forcing Conway to take out a restraining order against one parent and consider other options for her son's education.
Barely a month into what Conway says had been a smooth school year, the parent of one of Isaiah's classmates reportedly approached the young boy in the lunchroom. Conway says the mother confronted Isaiah about a name-calling incident involving the woman's child and told him to "stay away from [her] daughter." The protection order, filed on October 24, 2006, notes that the woman "had made it known that she wants Isaiah out of [Bush]" and the she had told Isaiah "any time he does anything, it would go on his permanent record and he would be out of the school." The woman's family would not directly address the situation at Bush, but stated that they "hope the school resolves this."
Shaken by that encounter, Isaiah called his mother in tears from the school office. After that incident, Conway—a calendar coordinator at King County Superior Court—filed the temporary restraining order on her son's behalf. The school set up a meeting between the families, but things seemed to backfire when, Conway says, she started getting as many as three phone calls a week from Bush about Isaiah. While arguments with teachers and disputes with other kids indicate that Isaiah is having some trouble with school, Conway defends her son, stating that the calls were about "kid stuff"—roughhousing and arguments mostly—which she attributes to the growing tension at school. "He's a typical kid, he's not an angel, but he's a good kid," she says. According to Conway, Isaiah was ostracized at the school. His friends would no longer allow him to sit with them at lunch, and the invitations to birthday parties and play dates that he had regularly received in previous years disappeared.
Conway says she received a phone call last week from Dr. Elaine Aoki, the director of Bush's K–5 program. According to Conway, Aoki told her that a student in Isaiah's class has been trying to bribe other kids into hurting Isaiah, that they had "put a bounty" on him. Conway reported the incident to police. This was when Conway found out that parents had been calling her son "a predator" and, she says, Aoki told her that Bush "wasn't the safest place" for her son.
Not only was Isaiah feeling harassed, his mother started having problems as well. When Conway would attend school functions, she says she started to "get the cold shoulder" from other parents. "When I walked into a room, it was like parting the Red Sea," she jokes.
Bush is an overwhelmingly white school. Isaiah is one of only nine African-American students out of the 185 students enrolled in the K–5 program. Conway says that none of the teachers at Bush are African American. Bush told us that they have one full-time African-American teacher, but refused to identify the staff member.
Four years ago—as soon as Isaiah was old enough to enroll in kindergarten—Conway, like all parents, only wanted the best for her son. She applied for a scholarship and says she never even considered sending Isaiah anywhere else. Conway, who lives with her son in Des Moines, says she disregarded her friends' warnings about the school. "Why are you sending him to Bush? There's nobody black there," they told her. "At the time, I didn't [worry] about it," she says. Conway was sold on Bush's pitch that the school "was about diversity." Conway says she "believed that. If you were to ask me that now..." she disappointedly trails off.
Conway was supposed to have a meeting with the school and several parents on May 29, but headmaster Magusin postponed it because—he told The Stranger—he "wanted to see what was going to be in [this] article."
Without naming any names, Magusin sent out a letter to Bush parents on May 18 about the situation at the school: "The past year has seen a lot of hurt in the third grade at our school, [which] has led to rifts between families, and between families and the school. I ask that all parents in the third grade step back from their current feelings and look into their hearts for the capacity to understand the experience and feelings of others."
Magusin told The Stranger, "It's hard to believe that there is intention on anybody's part to make any of the parents feel out of the loop or marginalized." Although he admits he has "no idea whether or not race is playing a part in this. It's not clear." He says he heard about Isaiah being called a "predator" but has "no idea whether [it] is true or not." Addressing Conway's accusations of class bias, Magusin says Bush doesn't "distinguish, as a school, between kids who are on financial aid and those who aren't." He says he is greatly concerned about "the message the kids pick up from all of this."
Purple jump rope in hand, Isaiah—standing in his grandmother's living room—said he wants Bush School parents to know that "their children are missing out on a great friend. I'm a really nice person." Then he got up, left the house, and went down the street to play with the neighbors.