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Seattle Public Schools hit with federal civil rights complaint for racial segregation

District hasn't responded to a year of warnings from Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, group says.

Published: April 16, 2023 11:04pm

Updated: April 20, 2023 2:38pm

Seattle Public Schools could find itself mired in a federal civil rights investigation for separating students by race in multiple programs, a month after it hastily removed racial eligibility criteria from a "potluck" that implicitly excluded whites and Jews.

The Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism filed a complaint Tuesday with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights against the district's Pathfinder K-8 School after a year of unheeded warnings that its practices violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

It's FAIR's first OCR complaint and "the most egregious version" of racial separation it has seen in submissions to its tracking portal, Managing Director of Legal Advocacy Leigh Ann O'Neill told Just the News. Multiple sets of Pathfinder parents started notifying FAIR in November 2021 but have not spoken publicly for fear of being called a "bigot," she said.

There's precedent for federal investigation, even in the Biden administration. 

Atlanta Public Schools is under a long-delayed OCR probe for allegedly segregating black students in their own classrooms and retaliating against parents who objected to their daughter's placement in such a classroom. It recently separated a majority-black school from majority-white schools in an "academic recovery" summer program.

FAIR's complaint lays out Pathfinder's invitations to "BIPOC" (black, indigenous, people of color) and multiracial families and students for events and programs, including a "Community Cafe," feedback-oriented "Listening Sessions" and "Lunchtime Community Building Groups."

Pathfinder said last fall it would offer affinity groups for BIPOC, mixed-race, white and Jewish participants but apparently cut it back to just black students in January, to be first offered to middle schoolers and then elementary students.

The purpose of the separation is starkly different based on the racial group, according to Principal Britney Holmes' Feb. 13, 2022 newsletter, which is quoted in O'Neill's letter and describes Pathfinder's first affinity group meeting Feb. 1.

Participants in the white group "embrace, excavate, and reckon with their Whiteness, including their privilege and power," and "examine how to center the voices and experiences of BIPOC without harming and/or re-traumatizing BIPOC."

The BIPOC group, by contrast, gives participants a time to "take care of themselves and one another while unpacking racism, internalized oppression, and racialized trauma, discussing the impact of White Supremacy Culture and the pressure of assimilation in the absence of Whiteness," Holmes wrote.

"That a public school might offer a racially-segregated group for every race of student within the school does not mitigate the illegality of this practice" under longstanding Supreme Court and OCR precedents, O'Neill's OCR letter says. It also teaches students "it is unsafe to be around those who do not share the same skin color."

She cited OCR's findings letter for Illinois' Oak Park and River Forest High School District, which said its black-only school assembly was not "narrowly tailored to address" its compelling interest in hearing from black students. The district did not "assess fully whether there were workable race-neutral alternatives" either.

O'Neill shared with Just the News FAIR's previous letters, which trace Pathfinder's creation of affinity groups to a "rope fashioned as a noose" outside the school.

Adults directed children to groups "based on the darkness of their skin" and "in some cases physically guided" them when they chose the wrong group, according to the April 2022 letter. It questioned how a BIPOC lunchtime group can build community — its stated purpose — "when a large portion of that very community is visibly and openly excluded."

The November letter emphasizes that the various affinity groups do not even treat participants equally, since whites are instructed to "admit to and atone for their ongoing acts of oppression" while "self-care" is the purpose of the nonwhite group. "It is irrelevant that participation may be voluntary" under Washington law, it says.

"I guess I'm a little bit not optimistic" that the district will end the practices, but filing the federal complaint shows the community "what their kids would be involved in" if they attended Pathfinder, O'Neill said.

She said FAIR received a similar submission also in fall 2021 about Vermont's Essex Westford School District, which offered affinity spaces for white, BIPOC and "Global Majority/BIPOC" participants following a heated school board meeting and vote to approve a new "equity policy" informed by critical race theory.

The signup form noted the "supported processing space[s]" are "divided by race" and that affinity spaces are written into the equity policy. It pointed to a chart describing those spaces, credited to a "racial equity coaching and consulting" firm, that mirrors Pathfinder Principal Holmes' statements.

SPS spokesperson Tim Robinson declined to comment on FAIR's complaint. "If there are any formal proceedings to emerge, the district will participate as necessary," he wrote in an email.

The district dealt with a bigger headache last month when Lincoln High School Principal Cory Eichner promoted a "lunch potluck" not explicitly open to whites or Jews in his March 3 newsletter, which has since been taken down.

It was timed for Multicultural Week, which is programmed by leaders in the Black Student Union, Latino Student Union and Asian Student Union. Eichner invited "students and staff of color and/or those who identify with any group represented by BSU/LSU/ASU."

"Nothing screams celebrating diversity like school-sponsored racism," KTTH radio host Jason Rantz wrote March 14, marveling that "the emailed version of the newsletter" links to the district's nondiscrimination policy.

"SPS and its overwhelmingly white, progressive educators think they're doing racial minorities a favor by treating them as an other, but they're creating division," Rantz wrote, inviting the public to file discrimination complaints with the district.

FAIR contacted the district March 16, the day before the lunch, to warn that it constitutes a "school benefit" withheld from students based on their race, in violation of Title VI and the 14th Amendment, according to a letter shared by O'Neill and referenced in a blog post. SPS General Counsel Gregory Narver responded the next day that the lunch was "open to all students," which the district also conveyed to Rantz.

Spokesperson Robinson showed Just the News the revised potluck email Eichner sent the community to fix what Robinson called "a matter of phrasing" with "an editing clarification."

It is substantially different from the original, not even naming a "potluck." The email credits the three racial student groups for their work on Multicultural Week but not specifically for the lunch, which was planned by "a number of our student groups ... As with all our clubs, any student is invited to join and bring their lunch on Friday." 

Eichner "merely recognized that the original wording wasn’t precise enough" and "didn’t convey the reality of the situation," Robinson said, pointing to Superintendent Procedure 3210 on nondiscrimination by race, which is mentioned in Eichner's revised email, and the district's strategic plan.

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