Families accuse Seattle Public Schools of mishandling civil rights complaints

They contend that what should be avenues of recourse for families and accountability for staff often lead nowhere.

Kienan Ellis and his mother, Christina, stand in their kitchen.

Kienan Ellis, 10, and his mother, Christina, wash up after dinner  Aug. 1, 2019, at their family's home in Seattle. (Photo by Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

By the time her son Kienan had finished the second grade, Christina Ellis had already tried out two schools. She hadn’t seen eye to eye with leadership at Wedgwood Elementary School, a public neighborhood school, and the structure of Our Lady of the Lake Catholic School proved too rigid for Kienan, who is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Thornton Creek Elementary, Ellis hoped, would provide him both the support and the freedom he needed to be successful in his third grade year. 

“Thornton Creek has this reputation as being this kind of hippie school, where kids are free to be who they are, and this welcoming environment where everyone is accepted where they're at,” she said.

The school, located in northeast Seattle, touts an exploratory, adventure-based learning model known as expeditionary learning. Thornton Creek serves about 545 students and operates on a $5.5 million annual budget, with approximately $300,000 raised by families and staff.

Through the district’s school choice lottery system, Ellis won placements for both Kienan and her then kindergarten-aged daughter, Talia, at Thornton Creek for the 2017-18 school year. 

Upon enrolling, Kienan received an individualized education plan, or IEP, that outlined his needs and how to modify school instruction to meet them. Ellis, a stay-at-home mom, got involved in her children’s new school, volunteering to be vice chair of the Thornton Creek Site Council, a parent-led governing body. The prospect of establishing a community around the school was exciting to her.

But that excitement was short-lived.

An internal investigation by Seattle Public Schools found that Ellis was the target of a retaliatory bullying campaign led by Thornton Creek staff, precipitated by a failed effort by several members of the school community to get the assistant principal at the time appointed as principal.

However, Ellis and her legal counsel insist that the probe came up short for several reasons, including the district’s decision not to review Ellis’ complaint about the retaliation as a civil rights matter. That friction is at the center of a tort claim she filed against the district in April, seeking damages for the impact that the retaliation had on Kienan.

Ellis maintains that her family’s experiences are symptomatic of a larger problem with the SPS civil rights complaint process failing the very families it’s supposed to help. Her story is one of several recent instances in which parents have recounted dissatisfying results when dealing with the district’s Office of Student Civil Rights, which handles such cases.

The office “is charged with receiving, investigating and resolving student complaints of discrimination,” which includes treating a student differently and denying them access to services on the basis of their being part of a protected class, or failing to accommodate one’s disability. Those complaints may be received formally or informally, and in written or verbal form.

Ellis’ complaint was complex and unwieldy, she acknowledges. The nine-page grievance summarizes various issues apart from alleged racial discrimination and disability retaliation aimed at Kienan; it requires thoughtful legal consideration in its evaluation. But still, Ellis said, the district has an obligation to investigate complaints, no matter how tangled they may be.

Kienan Ellis, 10, reads before dinner at his family's home in Seattle.
Kienan Ellis, 10, reads before dinner Aug. 1, 2019, at his family's home in Seattle. (Photo by Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

SPS’s discrimination complaint procedure, which is aligned with state guidelines, outlines an assurance that “the Deputy Superintendent will respond in writing to a formal complaint no later than [30] calendar days following the district’s receipt of the complaint, unless otherwise agreed to by the complainant or if exceptional circumstances related to the complaint require an extension of the time limit.”

Despite this, it took the SPS nearly 10 months to investigate Ellis’ complaint. Email communication shows the district’s human resources department declined to provide a specific timeline for the investigation's conclusion and didn’t inform Ellis of why the process was being prolonged.

Ellis told Crosscut that she believed the investigation would have taken even longer if she and two other parents had not published an online dossier containing email communication between individuals involved in the retaliation campaign. She described publishing the emails as a last-ditch effort to get the district to conclude the investigation.

“It’s like the fox guarding the henhouse,” Ellis said. “I think it’s all about [the district] protecting itself and not actually protecting the people who are harmed. That’s why in my opinion, [the Office of Student Civil Rights] should be separate from the district.”

In her suit, Ellis is asking that the district pay $450,000. She said she plans to use any winnings to start a legal aid fund to help local families without the financial means take legal action when the district’s internal processes fail them, as she believes they have failed her family.

The conflict behind the investigation

As a leader on the Thornton Creek Site Council, Ellis said one of her chief goals was to bring a racial equity framework to decision-making around the school. This, she hoped, would make families of color at the 73% white school feel more welcome and heard, following decades of underrepresentation in school leadership.  

During her tenure, she was also on the hiring committee for the school’s new principal, alongside several other parents, school staff and district officials. It was for her perceived influence in this role that, according to the district’s investigation, Ellis experienced retaliation.

Several documents, including Thornton Creek Site Council meeting minutes, various email threads and the district’s final investigation report, paint a picture of discontent on the part of several teachers and parents regarding the assistant principal’s ultimately unsuccessful bid for the principalship.

Although families and a variety of SPS employees are typically encouraged to have a seat at the hiring table, district policy doesn’t require their consensus; the superintendent has the final say. The district also reserves the unilateral discretion to hire without publicly posting principal positions, according to SPS spokesperson Tim Robinson.

Still, many felt the hiring process failed to consider their input about ensuring the principal-to-be would uphold Thornton Creek's prized expeditionary learning model. There were also concerns that members of the hiring committee had a preconceived bias against the assistant principal.

Ellis, who disagreed with this sentiment, wrote in her complaint that she was scapegoated for the hiring decision SPS ultimately made. Following the announcement that an outside candidate had won the position over the assistant principal, Ellis said she and her son were subjected to mistreatment until she ultimately pulled her children from the school.

In its investigation, the district found that it was a “reasonable perception” that staff at Thornton Creek “acted in concert” to retaliate against Kienan.

A letter written by SPS’s chief human resource officer summarizing the investigation details how Thornton Creek staff “coordinated to set up a special election, to push the adherence to bylaws (which were previously disregarded) in order to select new site council leadership,” and describes the efforts as “bullying in nature.”

“There was some back-channel coordination to circulate misinformation and confuse the rest of the parent population,” Evan Briggs, a former Thornton Creek parent who served as chair of the site council alongside Ellis, told Crosscut.

Briggs also claimed that there were efforts by staff to “misrepresent what was actually happening in order to basically, like, eliminate people from the community,” and said it seemed as though the expectation was for parents leading the site council to carry out teachers’ will when it came to making decisions.

The aforementioned letter also states that “there is no dispute that a group of teacher leaders and parent leaders conspired to select new Site Council leadership, due to the perceived alliance between the former co-chairs and District leadership.”

Ellis maintains that her advocacy for giving racial equity priority also contributed significantly to the backlash. She said the issues surrounding the principalship were merely the final straw.

“It was about getting rid of the crazy black lady who wouldn’t shut up about race and equity at the school,” Ellis said. “From the day I walked in and started talking about racism, those folks didn't like me. So when they finally had something to come after me with, they ran with it.”

The district, however, did not agree with this point, writing in its investigation summary that there was “no evidence to substantiate that these behaviors were motivated by race.”

Ellis and her legal counsel are also challenging SPS’s decision not to investigate two suspensions Kienan received shortly after a contentious site council meeting, in which disgruntled parents and staff sought to remove Ellis from the council, as disability retaliation. They also contend that the disciplinary action resulting from the investigation, which involved mandatory bullying and racial bias trainings for the staff involved, wasn’t sufficient.

“What becomes challenging are when civil rights complaints are siloed and viewed as only HR complaints,” said Shannon McMinimee, a local education attorney who is representing Ellis. “And so they're not reviewed consistent with the discrimination policy and procedure, and are then only investigated and compared against collective bargaining agreement language related to discipline.”

McMinimee told Crosscut that when a school district uncovers a civil rights violation by one of its employees, there are several courses of appropriate action officials may take. But generally, she said, that should include training for staff at large — not just the individuals implicated. This way, any potentially systemic problem can be addressed more holistically.

Ellis in particular is demanding the reassignment of the Thornton Creek staff in question, she said, to help break up what she described as a toxic culture at the school.

Stan Damas, SPS’s former executive director of labor and employee relations, resigned amid the investigation of Ellis’ complaint. He is now listed among key witnesses for Ellis in her pending lawsuit.

Damas declined to comment specifically on the investigation of Thornton Creek staff, but said that his “approach on investigations was to look carefully at a situation and to go wherever the facts took him” and that this “frequently made someone happy and someone else unhappy.”

SPS declined to comment on the investigation of Ellis’ complaint, citing her pending tort claim against the district.

A pattern of mishandled complaints

Ellis isn’t alone in her frustration over the Office of Student Civil Rights' complaint-investigation practices.

In West Seattle, Greg LaVielle said he’s encountered similar issues regarding a civil rights complaint he filed on behalf of his son, Shuai, who is an incoming senior at West Seattle High School.

Shuai, who played varsity soccer for West Seattle during the 2017-18 year, sustained what he later learned was a torn Achilles tendon on the field and ultimately needed surgery. After Shuai’s physical therapist advised that he could have avoided the surgery had his coaches recognized the severity of his injury sooner, LaVielle decided to file a claim against SPS in 2018 for damages related to the injury. 

But taking legal action, LaVielle said, has only brought about new problems.

“Every time something else arises with my son, the principal views any other issue through the lens of the lawsuit,” LaVielle said, maintaining that he’s been repeatedly stonewalled and redirected to the district’s legal counsel by school administration regarding school matters unrelated to his tort claim.

One such issue surrounds Shuai’s name. While his legal first name is Kenneth, he prefers to go by his Chinese middle name. LaVielle said Shuai has encountered several instances in which teachers have resisted honoring his name preference, which is a significant aspect of his identity.

But one of the most frustrating experiences, LaVielle said, was when Shuai’s name was misrepresented multiple ways in the 2018-19 school yearbook, even though LaVielle contacted the yearbook coordinator ahead of time to prevent such mistakes.

“Instead of ‘Kenneth,’ they spelled his name K-e-m-m-e-t-h,” LaVielle said, adding that he was told Shuai’s preferred name could not be used on the grounds of it being a “nickname” — a comment he asserted was culturally insensitive.

Shuai also mentioned that his name was incorrectly assigned to a photo of another Asian American student — a mix up that has happened on more than one occasion.

“Overall, I feel I was disrespected,” Shuai said. “To me, if I was a principal — if I ever saw a case where a student’s identity was misrepresented — I would freak out. It feels like they don't know what they're doing and they don't care.”

LaVielle said he wasn’t getting recourse at the school level, so he submitted a two-page complaint in July through the district's Office of Student Civil Rights. In his complaint, he outlined multiple occurrences he alleges point toward racial discrimination against Shuai by West Seattle staff. 

In addition to the yearbook errors, LaVielle also called attention to Shuai being repeatedly sidelined by his soccer coaches, seemingly in favor of white students. He asked SPS to investigate these incidents to determine whether they were forms of retaliation related to his pending tort claim against the district.

However, LaVielle received notification in August that the district would not be opening an investigation into his complaint, citing his unwillingness to be interviewed and a general lack of “sufficient facts to support [his] claim of discrimination.”

He had declined a request by the Office of Student Civil Rights to be interviewed by phone about his complaint, citing a preference to maintain a written record of his correspondence with the district.

LaVielle, who is a non-practicing attorney, insists that the investigator’s follow-up questions to his complaint sought answers that should come via a formal investigation. McMinimee, who in addition to representing Ellis, worked for SPS’s office of general counsel between 2005 and 2009, concurred.

“You shouldn’t have to put out every possible fact in the complaint,” she said. “The district’s job is to investigate. … There’s nothing in the nondiscrimination policy or superintendent procedure that states the specificity of the factual allegations that have to be made.”

McMinimee added that she has seen a recent pattern of district-level civil rights offices in Washington shutting down legitimate complaints without investigating them.

“I don’t know who suggested this as a tactic,” she said. “But that’s what it is — a tactic. This appears to be an effort by school districts to evade compliance with those policies and procedures by pushing off their investigations obligations back onto parents.”

In an email statement provided to Crosscut, SPS officials said that the district's "Office of Student Civil Rights operates within the policies and procedures of Seattle Public Schools board policy, as well as civil rights legal standards articulated by, among other agencies, the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights," and added that "a full investigation is conducted when warranted by the applicable policy and legal standards."

SPS declined to comment on LaVielle’s complaint, citing the ongoing but separate lawsuit LaVielle filed in regard to Shuai’s soccer injury. There is no litigation surrounding LaVielle’s civil rights complaint at this time.

LaVielle said he is in the process of appealing the district’s decision with the guidance of the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights. 

OSPI declined to comment on any individual cases in this report, stating that any such statements could be perceived as prejudgmental.

A third parent, Lashanna Williams, told Crosscut that she was similarly let down by the district. Williams, whose son recently graduated from Nova High School, said she was turned away and redirected to school administration when she approached SPS with a discrimination complaint against one of her son’s teachers.

“I spoke with everybody and I got the most hilarious runaround from everyone,” she said, adding that she approached the district only after she had unsuccessfully attempted to address the issue with school administrators.

It's difficult to gauge exactly how many families are making civil rights complaints in a school district, McMinimee said, because parents tend to present them informally to school-level administration.          

“A principal has to see that [complaint] and recognize to elevate that to the district policy,” she said. “So it’s really hard to track how many complaints are made because you have to rely on people sending them to the right people.”

Williams claims that school officials did ultimately agree that the teacher had acted in a biased manner toward her son — but only after she wrote a scathing online post about the alleged discrimination.

But even then, it was unclear whether anything would be done to discipline the teacher. The information Williams received about the status of her complaint was communicated to her over the phone, rather than in official, written notice.

“It was all verbal,” Williams said. “They would not send me anything over email and I am a receipts kind of girl.”

SPS officials declined to comment on Williams' allegations, stating that the district could not "talk about individual circumstances and cases."

McMinimee added that conducting a fair and full investigation is not just beneficial to families, but also to any employees who have been implicated.

“The outcome should be documented in a way where it's clear to everybody what the result was,” she said. “Nobody should have a cloud of suspicion over them. And at the same time, there also needs to be clear identification as to when there is a finding of misconduct, so future acts are not treated as a first offense.”

For her part, Ellis is glad that SPS ultimately agreed to remove Kienan’s suspensions from his student records. But she won’t be completely satisfied, she said, until the district concludes that her family’s treatment was, in part, racially motivated. 

“As long as they can continue to deny that it has nothing to do with race, they can’t ever fix the problem,” Ellis said. “That’s why I’m so hell-bent on suing them and them owning the racial component.”

This story has been updated to clarify that Seattle Public Schools declined to comment on any of the allegations appearing in this report prior to publishing. 

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About the Authors & Contributors

Liz Brazile

Liz Brazile

Liz Brazile is formerly an emerging journalist fellow at Crosscut, where she focused on public education in Seattle and Washington State.