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'Motivated by race:' Seattle Public Schools to pay $350,000 in civil rights complaint settlement

caption: Thornton Creek Elementary School, which is located in the View Ridge/Wedgwood neighborhood of northeast Seattle.
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Thornton Creek Elementary School, which is located in the View Ridge/Wedgwood neighborhood of northeast Seattle.
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The Seattle Public Schools district has agreed to pay a family $350,000 as part of a civil rights complaint settlement.

The agreement centers on findings that a Black mother and her son were the target of racial discrimination and retaliation by Thornton Creek Elementary School staff during the 2017-18 academic year.

The settlement, which was unanimously approved by the Seattle School Board on Wednesday, was reached following a third-party investigation into the conduct of several Thornton Creek teachers and administrators, some of whom have since left the district, toward Christina Ellis and her then 8-year-old son.

Ellis had previously served as vice chair of the school's site council, a parent-led governing body. She sent a nine-page complaint to the district in 2018, accusing school staff of effectively ousting her family from Thornton Creek for her perceived influence over the district's decision not to promote the school's vice principal at the time to principal.

Seattle Public Schools had, in 2019, completed an internal investigation, which concluded that school staff had indeed retaliated against Ellis by acting in concert to remove her from site council leadership, and by suspending her son twice shortly thereafter. That investigation was conducted over the course of roughly 10 months and prescribed training for the staff involved.

Ellis complained that the fallout from the hiring decision was, in part, the result of her advocacy that the hiring committee use a racial equity lens. The district, however, refuted that the retaliation was racially motivated and did not consider Ellis's complaint a civil rights matter.

But a second investigation, punted to a law firm specializing in civil rights compliance and paid for by the district, found "it more likely than not that [her son] was retaliated against because his mother was performing her duties as [site council] Vice Chair and principal hiring committee member, and because she advocated race and equity issues on behalf of her family and others at Thornton Creek."

"Moreover, one cannot separate the treatment and perception of [Ellis's son] by staff, from the demonstrated animosity that same staff directed at Ms. Ellis for the racial advocacy they saw as responsible for denying them their preferred principal candidate," the report continues.

The 31-page investigation report also cites a series of racist mischaracterizations of her son's behavior by school staff, who referred to him as being "dangerous" and "frightening."

"I think it was a really, really bad call on the part of the district to have a second investigation done, because the second investigation is so much more damning than the first," Ellis said.

Ellis pointed out that upon pulling her son out of Thornton Creek and enrolling him at Wedgwood Elementary, he has repeteadly received high praise for good behavior by Wedgwood staff.

"That person that they tried to create to justify their horrible behavior as teachers — that was their making. That wasn't him," she said.

In addition to the monetary settlment, three of the six individuals involved in the retaliation "have been issued corrective disciplinary action notices for their policy/procedural violations," according to an investigation outcome letter penned by the district's chief human resources officer, Clover Codd. The other three are not currently employed by Seattle Public Schools.

Ellis said that money wasn't her motiviation for taking action against Seattle Public Schools. But once it became clear that the educators involved in bullying her family would be allowed to remain at the school, she said, she saw a settlement as the next best accountability measure.

"I didn't want money — I wanted real justice," Ellis said. "I wanted those teachers removed. I was totally happy with walking out of there with $0 as long as it meant there was some consequences for the teachers. So my thinking was, 'Fine — I'll take the money and do something good with it.'"

She said she intends put the money from the settlement into a legal aid fund for Black and Indigenous families of color who need financial support to litigate with the district.

"I'm a Black mama who has the money to take it to the limit with this district," Ellis said. "I mean, here I am, two years later, still fighting these fools, right? How many other parents have the money, the will, the capacity to be able to do this? A very small minority."

Email communication shows that district legal counsel requested a private phone call between Ellis and Superintendent Denise Juneau. Ellis refused the phone call, citing a lack of trust in the district and a desire for transparency.

"Juneau has not even acknowledged or apologized on behalf of the district for what happened to me," Ellis said. However, she acknowledged that she did receive a written apology from Codd.

John Cerqui, the district's deputy chief legal counsel, said on Wednesday that staff at Thornton Creek would be required to complete anti-racism training in light of the investigation.

Chandra Hampson, vice president of the Seattle School Board, also spoke on Wednesday ahead of the vote approving the $350,000 settlement.

"That's the opposite of a warm and welcoming environment," she said. "I think one thing that we need to be able to talk about really honestly is, what are we doing to make sure that there's systemic change?"

For her part, Ellis said a change in leadership is in order for the district.

"Let's be honest, I lucked out with all the evidence I was able to provide," Ellis said. "No other family is going to be able to provide that much evidence. If I can't get justice, how is anybody ever going to get justice in this district with this current administration?"

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