Classroom abuse
Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau
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Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau
Credit: KUOW Photo/ Gil Aegerter

KUOW teacher abuse investigation 'has shaken so many of us to the core,' says Seattle Schools superintendent

More than a week after a KUOW investigation uncovered a pattern of Seattle Public Schools allowing abusive teachers to remain in the classroom, district Superintendent Denise Juneau has publicly addressed the scandal.

Juneau sent a letter to district staff via email Friday morning, describing the revelations in the story as “not acceptable” and said “the wellbeing and protection of students is [the district’s] paramount duty …”

The investigation cited ten cases of serious misconduct against students, some involving multiple offenses. In nearly every case, the teacher returned to the classroom.

One of the teachers, James Johnson, had punched an eighth-grader in the face and sexually harassed girls at Meany Middle School. The district let him return to the classroom twice - first in 2018, then in 2019 - each time, after a district investigation had substantiated the abuse.

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

Read: Seattle parents outraged by teacher abuse revelations, but superintendent remains silent

This school year, Johnson had been teaching math at Washington Middle School until the day after KUOW's story broke. The district pulled him from the classroom, saying new allegations had surfaced.

Students at the school, meanwhile, said they had been complaining about Johnson's behavior earlier this school year and had not been taken seriously. Children told KUOW their teacher had jabbed a boy in the neck, touched kids against their wishes, and called students humiliating names.

Their teacher is now on paid administrative leave for the third time in two years.

In today's letter, Juneau referenced a directive she said she’d given the district’s human resources department in the 18 months since she was hired, to improve “processes and procedures that put student safety at the heart of all decision making.”

Many parents said the statement rang hollow.

"The district writes letters and argues over policy and continues to point fingers and defer blame," parent Jill Lessig said in an email. Her daughter Sarah, a 7th-grader at Washington, said her previous complaints to school staff about Johnson's abuse of her peers had gone nowhere.

Superintendent "Juneau claims to have been working to improve HR for the past 18 months, however the policies that exist on the [district] website as 'changes' were not enacted in the case of Mr. Johnson" at Washington Middle School, Lessig said.

"The policies sound progressive, but it is all meaningless if it can’t be carried out when it matters," Lessig continued, "when a student says they or their classmates are being mistreated."

Ilana Guttmann, whose son attends Washington, said in an interview that she felt school officials had been dismissive of parents seeking a dialogue in the wake of KUOW's investigation.

"There's a clear misalignment between what's being communicated [by the district], and what's actually happening," Guttmann said.

She pointed to even more unease and upheaval since the classroom abuse revelations:

A district representative told Guttmann by email today that a substitute math teacher filling in after Johnson’s removal has also been replaced. The district said it had received "allegations" about the substitute teacher, too.

Read Denise Juneau’s full statement to district staff:

Dear Staff,

First and foremost, I want to extend my appreciation for the work you do each day in support of our students. I am proud to lead an organization made up of such dedicated staff, working hard to ensure a bright future for every student. Educating our children and youth is one of the most complex, challenging, and rewarding professions. Every person in SPS contributes to our students’ success and we should be proud of our work.

That is why last week’s KUOW article focused on educator misconduct has shaken so many of us to the core. I want to acknowledge the concerns raised and share the charge I have given Human Resources.

What was described in the article is not acceptable. We know that when families entrust their child to Seattle Public Schools, there is an expectation that the learning environment will be culturally responsive, warm, welcoming, and students will be safe and engaged in learning. The wellbeing and protection of students is our paramount duty, a responsibility I know you all take seriously. When the physical or emotional safety of a student is compromised, we all feel the repercussions. I am committed to making sure students and families can trust that in our classrooms and schools, students are shown unconditional care and respect.

As part of this commitment, over the past 18 months, I have charged Human Resources with improving processes and procedures that put student safety at the heart of all decision making. If you are interested in these changes, the information can be found here: https://www.seattleschools.org/district/calendars/news/what_s_new/transforming_hr

As part of the 2019 negotiation with SEA, we will also be working in close partnership with educators in a joint workgroup. We will review and address the components of the Collective Bargaining Agreement that include aspects of classroom management, response to student misbehavior, and an educator’s need for assistance, so that the guidance provided to classroom educators is aligned to the values and policies of the district.

Finally, I want to remind everybody of the importance of reporting allegations of employee misconduct. If you have concerns regarding another colleagues’ misconduct, please report to your immediate supervisor. If you feel that after doing so, your concerns have not been addressed, you may contact employeemisconduct@seattleschools.org.

Thank you for your support and unconditional commitment to our students. I am proud to serve you and this organization.

Sincerely,

Denise Juneau

Superintendent