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Community Members Question Seattle Public Schools’ Commitment To Equity And Inclusion

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    Seattle, WA Seattle Public Schools (SPS) has come under scrutiny about the treatment of African American administrators within the district. Two separate letters about the dismissal, demotion and/or resignation of African Americans who either previously worked or are currently working for the district have been published and/or circulated throughout the community.

The first letter, drafted by Clyde Merriwether, a prominent member of the African American community, questions the lack of African American males in senior leadership roles and directly asks Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau, “What you are going to do about the near complete lack of African-American male leadership within the school district and acknowledge what I believe is the continued focus on removing and demoting those that remain?”

According to Merriwether’s letter, Juneau inherited “at least four African-American males in senior leadership positions within the administration” none of which are currently working for the district.

The issue has been one of concern for many in the local African American community for some time as a number of high-profile African American males have either been fired or have left the district during the current administration. Most have been replaced by either a White woman or a White man. One was replaced by a Black woman and, reportedly, none have been replaced by a Black man.

Given the recent and historic emphasis on inclusion and Black male involvement in education across the country, and here in the Northwest, it is shocking for many to hear that a school district located in a city that prides itself on diversity currently has no African American males in senior leadership positions. According to education advocates, this is especially disheartening because just a few years ago there were at least four or five serving at the same time.

“Why hasn’t even a single African-American male been hired to replace any of those that you have fired or demoted?” questioned Merriwether. “We want to know why it is that African-American males remain so grossly under-represented in district leadership positions. Why can your district not hire, promote, or otherwise maintain African-American males? Just what is the problem in that regard?”

Merriwether’s letter comes at a time when the nation is not only dealing with a pandemic, but also during a time when the nation is dealing with issues of racial equity, particularly issues of race and equity when it comes to Black males. Accordingly, Merriwether says that he has lost confidence in the district’s ability to follow through on promises and commitments to the African American community under Juneau’s leadership, and he along with others are looking for answers, solutions and measurable actions.

“When I and others expressed concerns about these events, you expressed a seemingly sincere desire to support more diverse hiring practices,” Merriweather wrote. “We believed you when you met with various organizations and expressed your concerns about the lack of positive role models for African-American youth in our school system. However, it remains apparent that your words have not been accompanied by any action. In point of fact, it appears that your actions to date have been directed toward doing just the opposite.”

“Unfortunately, it appears that you have shown very little interest, if any, in including black men in your leadership team,” Merriwether continued. “And, in my opinion and the opinion of others, you have shown little to no interest in complying with the District’s own policy of promoting racial equity in your administration.”

One of the examples cited in Merriwether’s letter, is the case of former Seattle Public Schools’ Athletic Director Eric McCurdy, who was fired by the District in 2018 after the district settled a sexual harassment allegation against him by a former district employee who worked under McCurdy. McCurdy has since filed a lawsuit against the district, which according to McCurdy’s attorney, Donna Mack, is scheduled for trial on Oct. 5, 2020.

According to Mack, they “have not had any settlement discussions with SPS to date.”
In his letter to Juneau, Merriwether questioned what he perceives as the district’s willingness to settle the allegations against McCurdy, while not settling McCurdy’s claim against the district with the same level of expediency.

“Despite the school district having investigated and addressed the matter long before you arrived on the scene, you saw it fit to pay $500,000 to Mr. McCurdy’s accuser,” challenged Merriwether in his letter. “So, when an unfounded accusation of sexual harassment against an African-American man by a white woman was lodged, the school district just buckled and paid $500,000 to make the situation go away? At the same time, when that same African-American man asked for justice, the school district has to pay and waste thousands of dollars in legal defense to defend its position?”

In addition to Merriwether’s letter, a letter drafted by Members of the Black Leadership Team at Leschi Elementary School, the Racial Equity Team & SEA Union Representatives regarding the district’s “decision to abruptly remove” Principal Lisa Moland has also added fuel to the fire. Moland, an African American woman who was a first year principal at Leschi, was informed on March 27, when Seattle Public School buildings were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that she was no longer going to be principal at Leschi, and, according to reports, neither she, her staff nor members of the Leschi Elementary School community were provided with a proper explanation as to why she was removed.

Members of the Leschi Elementary School community believe the removal of Moland is not beneficial to the overall health, atmosphere and academic stability of the school. The group is not only concerned about the manner in which Moland was removed, but also the criteria and data that was used to make the decisions in the middle of the year.

“Leschi Elementary, a school situated in an historically Black neighborhood, has already experienced an abrupt removal of a Black, woman principal,” read the letter dated May 2, 2020 to Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau, the school board and other SPS administrators. “This was followed by 10 years of white principals. Leschi Elementary has had Ms. Moland, a Black leader for less than one school year as principal (due to COVlD-19). The community is left wondering; why is the district changing our admin during a worldwide pandemic with no explanation or communication?”

“How is Superintendent Denise Juneau’s strategic plan including the goals of: Safe and Welcoming Schools & Culturally Responsive Instruction being supported by removing a Black principal from Leschi Elementary?” the letter questioned. “There have been no state standardized tests conducted under Principal Moland (due to COVID- 19). What data (student growth or otherwise) was collected? How was data used to make this decision?”

Moland says that she was equally confused and surprised by the move, and publicly stated at a recent Leshi event that she had “been removed without even a reason why.”

According to sources within the building, the school made advancements this year in social emotional learning (SEL), where students are taught to self-regulate when agitated or upset, which reduces the number of trips to the Principal’s office and allows students to spend more time learning in the classroom. In addition, the school was able to leverage volunteers to come to the school and assist with academic and reading support.

“There was a big emphasis on literacy,” says a person working in the building speaking in anonymity. “We had literacy blocks (a specific block of time during the day devoted to reading comprehension and literacy) that showed great promise. There were no interruptions during these blocks and kids were not pulled out of class for any reason. She [Moland] really wanted to make sure that the kids were in the classroom as much as possible.”

It is also reported that Moland took a very different approach to discipline. Her approach was one that was geared more towards engagement, learning and understanding by both teachers and students rather than disciplinary consequences, unless absolutely necessary. During times of conflict in the classroom, administrative staff would help diffuse and support situations by coming into the classroom and allow the teacher, who witnessed or was involved with the incident, to go outside the classroom with the student and have a conversation about what happened, what precipitated the incident, and what could have been done differently as opposed to just sending the student to the office.

“This philosophy, in my opinion, allowed students and teachers to get a better understanding of one another and the dynamics in the room that could disrupt the learning process,” the source added. “It was a different approach, but it appeared to be working.”

While the removal of school administrators is not unusual, according to district insiders, it usually doesn’t happen within the first three years of a new assignment because “it generally takes a few years to have measurable outcomes to make those types of decisions.”

Equally disturbing to many observers was the attempt to demote Moland from a principal to an assistant principal. Moland was initially sent an agreement by district officials that, if signed, would have re-assigned her to an assistant principal position for the 2020-21 school year. The agreement, which included a reduction in pay, was later withdrawn after she was “encouraged to and did inform her staff” of her re-assignment. After the assistant principal position was withdrawn, Moland was sent a letter of agreement to finish out the year at Leschi without an assignment for the following school year. Eventually, Moland received a resignation agreement that would have placed her on administrative leave from May 5, 2020 until her effective resignation date of June 30, 2020. During the process, Moland also faced the possibility of not having her contract renewed and losing her principal credentials, which meant, according to sources in the district, that she would not be able to work as a principal in SPS or other districts in the area.

The Seattle Medium reached out to Moland for comment, but she indicated that she was not able to talk about her situation because she is in the middle of an administrative process with the district regarding her position.

The Seattle School District also did not comment on the allegations. However, they did provide the following statement regarding Moland’s status with the district:

“Although not at Leschi Elementary, Lisa Moland remains a principal at Seattle Public Schools and we are evaluating all principal vacancies and placement options for the 2020-21 school year.”

While this year has been very difficult for Seattle Public Schools, like most schools in the state, due to COVID-19, it appears that the district has many questions to answer as it relates to race and racial equity both inside and outside of the classroom, and it also appears that members of the African American community are demanding answers sooner than later.

“Short of any reasonable and documentable explanation we will mobilize and consolidate our efforts accordingly. I and others, both Black and White, are concerned by the apparent trend,” concluded Merriwether in his letter.

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Chris Bennett

Article Topic Follows: Regional News

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