School Climate & Safety

Excessive Force Used On District’s Students, NAACP Local Alleges

By Darcia Harris Bowman — April 14, 2004 3 min read
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A Seattle-area school district is facing nearly $40 million in damage claims for allegedly allowing its security officers to use excessive force in restraining students, including the use of handcuffs.

The Seattle branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed separate complaints last month against the Kent, Wash., school district on behalf of at least 12 black students from 10 families. The students say they suffered rough treatment at the hands of various security officers employed by the school district.

Carl Mack, the branch president of the civil rights organization, argues that the repeated incidents of excessive force disproportionately involved African-American students, and he suggests racism in the way the district applies its discipline policies. Ten percent of the school system’s 27,000 students are black.

“Out of the 25 families that have come to us [with complaints about the school officers’ restraint tactics], 23 were African-American,” Mr. Mack said last week. “That’s when it became clear to us that race was an issue here.”

Mr. Mack said his organization was seeking compensation for the affected families, the possible dismissal of some guards, and changes in the district’s discipline practices. Under state law, the NAACP can file a lawsuit 60 days after the complaints were filed with the district.

Kent Superintendent Barbara Grohe has called for an independent investigation of the incidents, and is planning a broader review of the district’s discipline and safety procedures. But she defended her district’s security force in an interview last week, and denied any systemic discrimination.

“Our security officers are called to situations in our schools where staff members feel they need additional assistance,” Ms. Grohe said. “And that is based on the behavior of the students, not on the race of the student.”

Review Planned

The Kent school system, Washington state’s fourth-largest district, employs 18 unarmed security guards. Two are assigned to each of the district’s four high schools, one at each of seven junior high schools, and three guards patrol the 28 elementary schools.

The NAACP complaints have called attention to the security guards’ use of handcuffs on even the youngest of the district’s students. The officers have carried the metal restraints since the force was started in 1995, Ms. Grohe said, and district officials estimate they have been used on students as many as 48 times since the start of this school year.

In four of those cases, the students were in elementary schools. The superintendent was not ready last week to say that the district would discontinue its use of handcuffs.

“We’re going to examine it carefully,” Ms. Grohe said, “but we’re going to be thoughtful about where we go next. We’re as concerned about the students and staff on the receiving end of this behavior as we are about the children involved in these incidents.”

The students listed in the various NAACP complaints accuse security guards of pulling their hair, dousing them with pepper spray, slamming them against lockers, and roughly handcuffing them.

Shuvonyeh Veasley, a 15-year-old Kent student who was one of the first three to file complaints against the district, says a security guard grabbed her by the hair, slammed her against a row of lockers, and then threw her to the floor and handcuffed her on March 15, according to a copy of the claim obtained from the district.

Ms. Veasley claims to have suffered public humiliation, back injuries, and pain from the handcuffs, as a result of the incident, and says her civil rights were violated. The claim estimates her damages at $3.3 million.

Ms. Grohe declined to comment on any specific allegations, but she emphasized that handcuffs are used only when students are in danger of hurting themselves or other students or staff members, or when officers suspect or know a student has a weapon.

The superintendent said last week that she was in the process of appointing a four-person committee— consisting of two parents who already serve on the district’s diversity committee, an auditor, and a school safety specialist—to investigate the incidents listed in the NAACP complaints.

She said she also plans to hire a safety expert with national expertise to review the district’s policies, operations, and training.

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