Mercer Island School District is found to have discriminated against middle school student

A judge has determined that the Mercer Island School District discriminated against a student at Islander Middle School last year by its handling of allegations that the student was harassed by other students in October 2011.

An Oct. 15 decision by Judge Michelle C. Mentzer of the Washington State Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), on behalf of the state superintendent's office, says that the school district mishandled an investigation and its aftermath involving two incidents involving a student who has special needs. The parents of the student complained that the district did not adequately address claims of racial slurs and related behavior involving their son, as required by state law to protect students. The judge ruled that the investigation regarding the incidents was flawed and sufficiently serious enough to create a hostile environment.

The student came to Islander Middle School as a new student in the seventh grade. He came with an individualized learning plan from his prior school district. He is of mixed race. He spent his first week at the school in IMS's special education program, but was later withdrawn from that program by his parents and joined a regular classroom.

Just a few weeks later, the student reported two incidents of racial and ethnic harassment that occurred in a class in October. They included racial slurs by a fellow student and were followed by other incidents that included throwing crabapples, essays that described harm, poor grades and tears.

School District Superintendent Gary Plano and, later, the Mercer Island School District Board of Directors made the determination that an investigation (conducted by the school district via an outside party with ties to the district) was sufficient and that meaningful steps had been taken to address the complaints.

The parents of the student, Robin and Nicholas Wilt, disagreed and appealed to the state superintendent's office. From there, the appeal was moved to the OAH.

The district is instructed to update their policies and procedure as required by law to address discrimination. Additional training has been ordered for administrators and staff.

Teachers and administrators dealt with the accusations and incidents, but did not — according to the OAH — handle the incidents completely. Among the nearly 90 findings of fact, the OAH determined that the school district let the focus for the discrimination to fall upon the student and his behaviors. While 10 tor more teachers and administrators responded to the incidents and their aftermath, they were faulted for not "conducting a thorough investigation, leaving out key tasks and pieces of information that should have been shared with all parties, failing to punish or deal with perpetrators in a timely fashion, doing complete fact-finding through interviews of all parties, or providing adequate and updated training and information."

In a statement posted on the school district's website, Superintendent Gary Plano wrote: "We are committed to providing an educational environment free from any discrimination, including student-on-student, harassment and bullying."

It continues, "Despite our best efforts, in October of 2011 at Islander Middle School, there were reports of isolated student-on-student harassment, largely in the form of racial harassment. The teachers and administrators took immediate action to address the situation, and worked extensively with the family and school community. These measures have been effective. "The district respectfully disagrees with the recent administrative law judge’s determination regarding this situation. The district is reviewing its options with legal counsel, including whether to appeal the decision: "We are committed to open and transparent communications around this issue and will be proactively sharing information with parents and staff to address any concerns they may have."

The Wilt family indicated they will likely take civil action against the school district. Their son remains a student at Islander Middle School.


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