Botched harassment inquiry leads to ‘hostile environment’

A judge has determined that the Mercer Island School District discriminated against a student at Islander Middle School last year in 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 regarding 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. The judge ruled that the investigation regarding the incidents was flawed, and those flaws were sufficiently serious enough to create a hostile environment.

The student came to Islander Middle School last fall 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 He spent his first week at the school in IMS’s special education program, but was later withdrawn from that program by his parents and joined a regular classroom.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 crab apples, essays that described harm, poor grades and tears.

In November, in a single page letter that accompanied the district’s own investigative report (conducted by the school district via an outside party with ties to the district) into the matter, School Superintendent Gary Plano notified the parents of his decision that the investigation and the actions taken were sufficient. It also said that meaningful steps had been taken to address the complaints.

The parents of the student, Robin and Nicholas Wilt, disagreed and appealed to the Mercer Island School District Board of Directors. They voted in February to uphold Plano’s decision.

The Wilt family was stunned.

“We could not believe that we found ourselves in this situation,” Robin Wilt said. “If they would have been willing to work with us, it would not have escalated to this level.”

The Wilts then took their appeal to the Washington state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. From there, the appeal was directed to the OAH.

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 fall upon the student and his behaviors.

“They used the fact that we took our [son] out of special education in a retaliatory fashion,” Wilt said.

While 10 or 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 the OAH decision, the district is instructed to update its policies and procedure as required by law to address discrimination. Additional training has also been ordered for administrators and staff.

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

“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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