Law & Courts

Shades of Understanding

By Joetta L. Sack — April 09, 2003 11 min read
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Schools in Puyallup, Wash., are trying to be more attentive to the perspectives of minority students. It's a welcome change.

Cynthia Dunn’s daughter, Victoria, had already endured teasing and name- calling from her elementary school classmates because she is biracial. But Dunn knew there was much greater trouble when, in 5th grade, Victoria returned from vacation with a tan and her teacher told her, in front of the class, that she “looked like a chocolate bar.”

Dunn’s concern and frustration only grew when, after asking the school’s principal for help, she was told to “take it up with the teacher.”

“I went out of that school angry—there was nowhere to go, nowhere to turn, nobody would listen to me,” recalls Dunn, who went to her car and cried, afraid to take on the Puyallup district alone. “I told my daughter, ‘Honey, this is just the way life is here—you’re just going to have to deal with it.’”

It turns out that Dunn wasn’t alone. Throughout the 1990s, scores of other parents encountered similar runarounds, they say, when they tried to pursue complaints about race-related discrimination and harassment in this rural district in west-central Washington state.

Eventually, Dunn was among 59 parents, students, and former students who filed a racial-discrimination lawsuit against the district in January 2000, setting the stage for what promised to be a protracted and costly court battle that threatened to further unravel Puyallup’s already-frayed social fabric.

Enter E. Susan Gourley, the district’s kindly-yet-forceful superintendent. Eighteen days after she came on the job in July 2000, she began talks to negotiate a settlement. She wanted to resolve the case quickly so that, rather than having courts tell the district what to do, people here could “chart our own course.” It took twoyears, but eventually an accord was struck with all of the parties involved.

The settlement not only provides $7.5 million in damages to the families of the plaintiffs, but also will affect nearly every facet of the 20,000-student district’s business, from hiring to curriculum to athletics.

Now, for the first time in years, Gourley and others here see signs that things are improving. Rather than dodging such tough issues, she and other district leaders are eager to show off their schools and the changes they’re making.

Gourley, who believes that what happened in Puyallup could take place anywhere, hopes that her district’s settlement will be a blueprint for school systems elsewhere that confront challenging issues of race relations.

“We’re going to be open about sharing our progress,” she says.

Thirty miles south of Seattle and just east of Tacoma, Puyallup used to be a primarily blue-collar, rural farm town best known for cheap-car lots. But when real estate prices in Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia soared in the 1990s, the town became known for its cheap land. And, some here say, that’s when underlying racial tensions bubbled up.

Today, the community, with a population of 100,000, has heavy traffic and miles of strip malls and seemingly random development. To accommodate the growth, thick forests are being leveled to squeeze in hundreds of beige-colored houses. The schools are still about 82 percent white, but are seeing increasing numbers of African- American and Hispanic students, who total about 3 percent and 4 percent of the enrollment, respectively. The remaining students are American Indian and Asian.

Rather than dodging such tough issues, district leaders are eager to show off their schools and the changes they're making.

The town is fiercely proud of its many sports championships. Alumni of Puyallup High School, where some of the incidents took place, often leave gifts to the school in their wills.

According to the families who sued, minority students were not always welcomed at Puyallup’s schools. Even after the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights investigated for racial bias, and in 1998 ordered the district to revise its policies for dealing with complaints, problems persisted, the plaintiffs say.

The court documents tell sobering stories: teachers who used racial epithets in referring to black students during classes and athletic practices, and allowed white students to do the same; administrators who permitted a group of white students to carry Confederate flags to school; and an administration that turned a blind eye when graffiti such as “KKK” and “Die Nigger” were spray- painted on school buildings. One plaintiff, who was a football player, says he was beaten, called racial slurs, and once found his football jersey smeared with excrement.

“What struck me was the extent that the conflict was unaddressed,” says John R. Connelly Jr., the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs. “When parents would go to the school and ask that something be done, there was lip service, but nothing was being done.”

Linda Quinn was the principal of Puyallup High at the time of some of the incidents. She has since spent a year as the principal-in-residence at the federal Department of Education and is now the principal of another high school in Puyallup. Reflecting on the past turmoil in the district, she says that many of the incidents cited were grave misunderstandings.

Puyallup High School was severely overcrowded, and as a result, discipline problems were rampant, she says. Those problems largely subsided, she adds, after a new high school opened in 2000 near the new subdivisions south of town. Puyallup High’s enrollment has dropped from 2,400 to 1,500 since then.

Quinn maintains that the white students might just have been naive or unsophisticated on issues of race as a result of growing up in an isolated area.

“The kids we were dealing with were a reflection of a community growing up,” she says. “Some came to us with without any open-minded ideas and not much world awareness.”

“There are some bad attitudes,” she adds. “But among the majority of the kids there’s a lack of sophistication in their understanding.”

Quinn says she took discipline seriously, and always asked the students involved if an incident was racially motivated. Every time, she recalls, the answer was no.

She points to a much-publicized incident in which a white student posed for a yearbook photo in blackface. That incident occurred, she says, when a large group of students was waiting for a photo to be taken on the football field. When the wait became too long, students began painting each other’s faces with tar used by the football players. The student in question, Quinn says, was unaware that his face had been painted solid black, nor did he realize its offensiveness to African-Americans.

Though the lawsuit was an experience she would rather not have endured, she believes it will bring about change and heightened awareness in the Puyallup schools. “It’s a painful way to get there, but often, learning is painful,” Quinn says. “If you peel away everything, we want the same thing.”

Gourley says she didn’t know details of the lawsuit when she was hired as superintendent three years ago. But she was willing to take the job—and the school board was willing to hire her—because she had seen similar problems in other districts and wanted to take the initiative in dealing with them.

Once Gourley, who had been an assistant superintendent in Salem, Ore., entered the settlement talks, it still took more than two years for a federal mediator, the plaintiffs and their lawyers, and the school board, district officials, and their lawyers to work out an agreement. A federal judge approved the final product last September.

The settlement has two parts. The first involves the $7.5 million cash settlement, which was negotiated and paid by a risk-management pool for Washington districts.

Cynthia Dunn was among 59 parents, students, and former students who filed a racial-discrimination lawsuit against the district in January 2000.

Connelly, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, declines to say exactly how the money was distributed, but says that each of the 34 students involved should have enough money for college and, in some cases, more. He’s particularly proud of the result because, he says, racial-discrimination complaints are becoming harder to argue after recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Edwin C. Darden, the director of the National School Boards Association’s center for urban schools program and a lawyer for the New York School Boards Association, says the settlement should be viewed as a reminder to local districts to handle such incidents promptly. “The amount is somewhat extraordinary,” he says, “but the circumstance is extraordinary as well.”

While Puyallup officials say they had an anti-discrimination plan on the books, Darden says “it seems as if the district wasn’t as careful as they need to be” in enforcing it. Most school districts have anti-discrimination plans, he adds, “and most are faithful about enforcing them aggressively.”

More important than the money, Gourley says, is that the district worked with the plaintiffs to write a settlement. “We weren’t looking for something to make the problem go away for us,” she says.

Under the settlement, the district will review all its policies, including for athletics and for staff recruitment, and re-evaluate its curriculum. The total cost for the initiative is about $400,000 in the first year, out of a $138 million district budget.

The core of the 10-year settlement is the district’s new office of diversity affairs, which is led by Marya Gingrey. Indeed, the job now entrusted to her may be the toughest of all: selling the plan to students, faculty members, and the community.

When the Tacoma native closed her law practice to take the Puyallup job in January, she says people asked her, “Why would you want to go there?” To the contrary, Gingrey says she was surprised to find a “remarkable amount of support” from the community.

“The community recognizes the need to progress, but they have not had a person driving that,” Gingrey says. “People are saying, ‘Tell us what to do.’”

Gingrey’s schedule is packed with meetings with various community groups and school staff members as she sets up avenues of communication about issues of racial and other diversity.

In February, for instance, she met with students who were concerned their high school was not doing enough for Black History Month. She helped them, and school officials, find more activities. Now, the students will serve on a planning committee for next year’s events.

She’ll also serve as the ombudsman for the community and the district; most importantly, she’ll monitor the settlement and issue an annual report on the district’s compliance.

Gingrey wants to incorporate offerings that promote diversity in existing curricula, rather than tack on additional responsibilities. The Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, in Portland, Ore., will also review all policies related to the settlement.

In January, Puyallup High students organized an assembly to talk about Martin Luther King Jr.'s life. Some minority students spoke about their heritage and experiences.

Branden Hubbel, a senior who is a Native Hawaiian, spoke at the event and stressed that while everyone is different, nobody should be judged by the way he or she looks.

“Lots of people can recite the ‘I Have a Dream’ spech by heart,” Hubbel says. “But it’s not so much being told the information, but having to think about it.”

Katie Wilson, another 12th grader and one of the organizers of the event, says she believes the assembly made an impact on her peers. Often, crowds at assemblies can be rowdy, she notes, but in this case, students were respectful and really seemed to listen to the speakers. She’s now helping plan events for students with disabilities to talk about their experiences.

Despite such positive reports, it’s clear that some students and local residents have mixed feelings about the lawsuit and how it was eventually settled. Several Puyallup High teachers and students defend their school and community. They say they don’t believe the school or the town is racist, and they question whether a lawsuit was necessary. They also believe the schools were already taking steps to raise awareness of diversity issues before the settlement.

“Filing a lawsuit did catch a lot of attention, but there are other ways to catch that attention,” says Rhyan Sweem, a senior at Puyallup High.

‘A lot of the community felt we kind of threw in the towel ... without looking at all the issues that should have been explored.’

Laurie Pruden, a world-languages teacher who supports the diversity policies, believes that some of the people targeted in the lawsuit were the least likely perpetrators of racial insensitivity. About 100 teachers gave depositions in the case, causing worry that they had done something wrong, she says.

“It wasn’t a question of overt racism,” Pruden says. “It was just sometimes things that they hadn’t talked about.”

Others have been more outspoken.

Hans Zeiger, a Puyallup High senior and community activist who is a member of Renew America, the conservative political group founded by former Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes, questions the district’s new policies. He suggests that the emphasis on diversity will detract from the schools’ educational mission and will showcase racial differences instead of bringing people together. “The message is more on diversity, but it should be on our similarities,” he says.

In the community, some also are upset that the district settled the case for so much, so quickly—even if the money was not coming directly from their pockets.

Marjorie Hobble, a local activist, wishes some of the issues raised in the lawsuit had been discussed in court.

“A lot of the community felt we kind of threw in the towel ... without looking at all the issues that should have been explored,” she says. “I feel some of the issues are things that could be worked out—there are always problems to be solved in school, and I wondered why some of these issues weren’t dealt with at the time.”

The plaintiffs and their lawyers still see some underlying hostility surrounding the settlement. The lead plaintiff, Gwen Thomas, a mother of seven, moved because she was harassed by Puyallup residents, Connelly says.

Cynthia Dunn, Victoria’s mother, worries that Superintendent Gourley will be pressured to leave.

Another plaintiff, Lynette M. Crout, said her 14-year-old son, who is biracial and also was teased by his teachers and peers about his race, has been doing well in Puyallup schools since the lawsuit was settled. Still, she worries that he is now less enthusiastic about school.

“It changed him,” Crout says. “We can’t get back those years, can’t go back and undo the damage. He never should have had to go through that.”

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