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Seattle middle school students descend on principal’s office, demand teacher be removed

caption: Washington Middle School in Seattle.
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Washington Middle School in Seattle.
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On Friday morning at Washington Middle School, the school was buzzing about a KUOW report that math teacher James Johnson had a long history of documented sexual harassment and physical abuse of students — including punching a student in the face at nearby Meany Middle School in 2018.

But it wasn't news to seventh-grader Sarah Lessig or her peers that their teacher mistreated students. They said they'd experienced it firsthand, and even reported it numerous times to school administration to no avail.

On Friday, students rallied for change as Johnson took his place in classroom, as usual.

"They were all like, 'Yeah, this is totally wrong. We need to fix this. He's been doing this for a while,'" Lessig said.

READ: Seattle Schools knew these teachers abused kids — and let them keep teaching

She said that Johnson recently jabbed one classmate hard in the throat. Also, Lessig claims he called students names and made fun of their physical features, and wouldn't stop touching them on the back and shoulders — even when they asked him to stop.

"He'd been doing it the whole year to a number of students," Lessig said. "Like, digging into their shoulders."

She recounted one incident in class earlier this school year, when one of her classmates told Johnson to stop touching him, and moved away from the teacher.

"Mr. Johnson continued to move towards him," Lessig said. "And he said, 'Boy, I will touch you if I want.'"

"[My classmate] said, 'You can go to jail for that,'" she said.

Lessig said Johnson replied that he didn't care if he went to jail.

Johnson's co-teacher witnessed the episode, but did nothing to stop the teacher, Sarah added.

On Friday morning, after learning that their teacher had been reassigned to their school despite discipline for abuse toward students in two districts, Lessig said students demanded that the administration, and district, finally take action.

Students lined up in the main office before school to file their own allegations against Johnson — things they said he'd done to them, or that they'd witnessed.

Lessig was part of a group of 10 students who took their concerns to the school counselor that morning. Some said they didn't feel comfortable going to his class anymore.

"You could tell that she was concerned about it," Lessig said. "And this wasn't the first time she had heard about it."

Lessig said that she and her peers felt dismissed by school officials when they previously made abuse allegations against Johnson. They were told to write up formal complaints, she said, or to start documenting all of the incidents of misconduct.

"It made me think that they won't believe us about anything," said another student, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. "Because it seems like they don't believe us about this."

She recalls Johnson calling girls "baby girl," "sweetie" and "honey" in class. This is despite a 2018 disciplinary letter that told him to stop calling students by pet names. She also said that he dubbed an Asian student "kung fu kid." He had tried to get a Hispanic girl to dance with him to salsa music.

"She started saying 'turn it off, we have talked about this,' and was really mad about it," the student said. "It made me and a lot of people I know very uncomfortable."

A teacher at Washington Middle School told KUOW that she wished she'd done more when she'd heard things from students about Johnson's behavior earlier this school year. She had not understood how serious the students' complaints were, she said. She, too, asked to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation.

"I'm devastated," she said. "Teachers were in shock. How could the district let this happen? How could they put him at this school?"

Around 11 a.m., the school principal sent parents an email, noting that the KUOW investigation outlined past incidents that she said had been resolved.

But by the end of the school day, the principal emailed parents again, saying new allegations had surfaced. Johnson was put on paid leave and escorted from the building.

It is the third time in two years the teacher has been put on paid leave for allegations of abuse, nearly all of which previous Seattle School District investigations have substantiated.

KUOW has asked the district for details about the new allegations.

Students and parents said they don’t want him back in their classroom – or in any classroom.

"It wouldn't be good to have other students go through the same thing," said Lessig.

Why you can trust KUOW