Are Seattle Schools Racist?
Recent Controversies Raise Questions About Fairness
At last week's school board meeting, race problems at Seattle Public Schools reared their head once again. Students, parents, and teachers testified against the district's recent suspension of a race and social justice curriculum at the Center School (after one family complained that it was "intimidating"). But over the course of the evening, other issues came to light—the way the district seems to ignore South Seattle schools and, perhaps most pressingly, the US Department of Education's new investigation into the district's disproportionate punishment of students of color.
"I think we run the risk of denying institutional racism, and we cannot do that," board member Sharon Peaslee told the crowd.
The broad questions here: Who does this district listen to? Who does it work for? At the meeting, Mikayla Crawford-Harris, a former Center School student who now teaches at Rainier Beach High School, said that a single family's complaint halting a popular class made her think of her students, who have done everything from testifying at board meetings to staging walkouts, all to get the district's attention on renovating their rundown building. "I wonder what it would take for those students to be heard," she asked. "What is it about the student that did complain [at the Center School] that got them heard?"
The questions implied something familiar—and true: The family who complained at the Center School is white. Rainier Beach's student body, district data show, is 91 percent students of color.
For the better part of a year, the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has been investigating whether our school district punishes black students "more frequently and more harshly" than white students for the same behavior, according to department spokesman Jim Bradshaw. The investigation's scope and timeline aren't entirely clear yet.
Under pressure, the district has now reinstated the curriculum at Center School, but with restrictions that the teacher and students find limiting and confusing. "I'm glad we can resume the curriculum," says the teacher, Jon Greenberg, but its suspension "should not have happened" in the first place, and he's unhappy with some of the restrictions.
Students echoed those mixed feelings. "If this happens to any teacher who teaches social justice, their curriculum is brought under constant scrutiny, what teacher is going to want to teach this?" senior Zak Meyer asks.
Now that the whole district is under scrutiny, the director of the district's Equity and Race Relations department, Bernardo Ruiz, says he "welcomes" the federal investigation into racial disparities and thinks it will "strengthen our department." But strengthening the district's commitment to equity comes down to money—from the school board and maybe the Feds. "Educational and racial equity means that we allocate resources to kids that need it most," Ruiz says. And the systematic underfunding of education in this state, which is so dramatic that the state supreme court has ruled it unconstitutional, means money discussions are always hard. But right now, the Feds and students are finally pushing those discussions—about racial equity and adequate funding—into the open.
This article has been updated since its original publication.