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caption: Bailey Gatzert Elementary parents Amalia Icreverzi, Nimco Ahmed, Aisha Mohamed, Abu Mohamed, Ali Abdulaziz and Jaime Griesemer stood outside the school on June 24, 2019. 
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Bailey Gatzert Elementary parents Amalia Icreverzi, Nimco Ahmed, Aisha Mohamed, Abu Mohamed, Ali Abdulaziz and Jaime Griesemer stood outside the school on June 24, 2019.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld

How Bailey Gatzert Elementary School in Seattle devolved into chaos

Fourth- and fifth-graders smoking in the bathroom.

Kids attacking each other ... and their teachers.

Students afraid to walk home from school.

Bailey Gatzert Elementary had a hard-earned reputation as a warm, welcoming environment for vulnerable kids. But now, parents and teachers say, the Central District school has turned chaotic and dangerous.

"Every single day we have a problem. Like fighting. Like bullying," said Nimco Ahmed, who has three children at Gatzert. Ahmed said she sees a lot as a school volunteer, as well.

"They’re just fighting inside the restroom. Inside the class? They’re just fighting. Outside, playground? They’re just fighting. Inside, the hallway? They’re just fighting.”

Bailey Gatzert sits steps from Yesler Terrace, the city's oldest public housing project. More than three-quarters of Gatzert students are low-income. Ninety-three percent are children of color. Many come from immigrant or refugee families, and a large number are homeless or in foster care.

For years, Gatzert was known as a home away from home for students.

"It was more of a family sort of atmosphere," said Ramona Goncalves, a special education instructional assistant who has worked at the school for eight years.

Goncalves said the school provided critical support and structure for students and families, thanks in part to the grants and partnerships the school administration organized.

"The parents knew their children were going to get educated, fed, clothed, disciplined — whatever needed to happen," Goncalves said.

Discipline was predictable and constructive, Goncalves said, and always included parents. If parents couldn't come to the school to talk through problems with their children and the administrators, "we had family support workers who would go get the parents, or they'd make a home visit," Goncalves said.

Staff and parents say the culture changed in 2017, after longtime principal Greg Imel retired, and Laurie Kazanjian took over as principal.

"We had a lot going for us. And it just kind of all fell apart in the last two years,” Goncalves said.

KUOW interviewed eight Gatzert staff members and 13 parents for this story. They said behavior expectations and discipline at the school have become lax. Parents and staff say children now frequently attack each other – and their teachers.

"Kids’ behavior says 'I need help,'" but they aren't getting the help they need, said a teacher who, like most of the school staff KUOW interviewed, requested we not use her name for fear of retaliation.

In a letter to Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau earlier this month, Gatzert staff wrote that a lack of discipline and behavior expectations have “resulted in a major upswing in physical altercations” at the school.

They wrote that they have tried many times to bring the problems to Principal Kazanjian's attention, and have escalated their concerns several levels to Chief of Schools Michael Starosky without resolution.

The building, staff wrote, "has now turned into a war zone.”

Denise Hopson, whose daughter attends Gatzert, said the same boy has been harassing her 8 year old all school year - calling her profane names, attacking her physically, and threatening her - and the administration hasn’t put a stop to it. Instead, Hopson said, they excused the bullying by saying the boy had experienced trauma.

"Well, my child's being traumatized by him, so I'm just confused," Hopson said. "Why is it that you guys aren't making any stricter rules or disciplinary action for him?"

Hopson filed a complaint with Seattle Public Schools’ Office of Student Civil Rights. In March, a district investigator found that school leaders failed to implement required measures, like making a safety plan to prevent more bullying, and separating the other child from Hopson’s daughter.

The district recommended training for administrators and staff in how to handle student harassment.

Still, Hopson said, the bullying continues. She said her daughter has been having nightmares. She has developmentally regressed, Hopson said, and sometimes begs not to go to school in order to avoid the harassment.

"She's emotionally a wreck. I feel sorry for her, but I feel like she has the proper steps in place to help her overcome it. She goes to counseling," Hopson said.

Most of Hopson's concern, she said, is actually reserved for her daughter's bully.

"When he gets into the real world, he's gonna get harder consequences that may cost him his life. Or his freedom."

For years, Seattle Public Schools has been trying to reduce discipline of children of color, partly in response to a federal investigation into the district's inequitable discipline rates that KUOW revealed in 2013. But teachers at Gatzert say the new administration seems to be responding by avoiding even necessary discipline.

Ramona Goncalves, the instructional assistant, said that doesn’t help kids.

"You've set them up not to be anywhere but in trouble," Goncalves said. "Now it's kind of like the pipeline to prison, for real."

Teachers and parents at Gatzert are painfully aware of how short that pipeline can be: the King County Juvenile Detention Center is just two blocks away. They point in its direction when they talk about where they worry these young children will end up in just a few years.

Several teachers at the school said the violence at Gatzert has ripple effects in the surrounding neighborhoods, where most of the students live.

Students are now scared to walk home from school, another teacher said, because they worry about getting jumped by their classmates.

"We have second-graders who ... the police know who they are now, let’s put it like that," the teacher said.

Staff say the ripple effects extend to the Seattle Preschool Program site at the school, which many Gatzert students' younger siblings attend. A fight broke out recently between three pre-K students that landed them in the office at Gatzert.

Staff say the substitute principal in charge that day handled the situation thoughtfully and appropriately. But they say it's an example of how unchecked discipline problems at the elementary school can influence younger children.

Last month, Gatzert staff took the unusual step of holding a no-confidence vote in Principal Kazanjian. The vote was 73 percent no-confidence, with 13 percent abstaining. When they sent the results of the vote to district officials, staff say, the response was dismissive.

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Bailey Gatzert Letter to SPS Administration

Parents say the principal and district have failed to adequately address their concerns, as well.

Seattle Public Schools and Kazanjian declined KUOW’s numerous interview requests.

District spokesman Tim Robinson issued a written statement. "Central office staff is working directly with the principal regarding the communicated concerns," he wrote.

Student safety is the district's top priority, Robinson said by email.

"Bailey Gatzert follows all district procedures regarding student conduct, including contacting families/guardians if there is an incident," he said.

"In fact, the school leader has put into place a number of new measures to improve building-wide safety and to promote a positive school climate and culture," he said.

Parent Denise Hopson said she’s seen no evidence of that. She said parents have tried to organize to demand a change in leadership, together but feels that "the district is trying to deter us."

Parents and staff said the saddest part is that they know how safe and welcoming a place Bailey Gatzert could be.

For many years, they said, it was that place.

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