Kathy Yasi tells the little kids in the day-care center she runs, “We solve problems with words.” That philosophy apparently is too challenging for high-school seniors, at least in the Seattle School District.
The district Wednesday confirmed rumors that it is transferring Jon Greenberg, whose Race and Social Justice class at The Center School was the subject of an investigation earlier this year after the parents of one senior complained their daughter felt intimidated by discussions of race.
Eighteen Center School teachers had signed a letter urging Superintendent José Banda not to accept the transfer.
Yasi is among a group of parents who’ve also written a letter to Banda protesting Greenberg’s transfer to Hamilton International Middle School. She acknowledges that discussions about race and social justice can be uncomfortable, but she and her husband chose the school partly because they want their daughter to have that kind of challenge and the growth it promises.
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“We want our daughter to have the kinds of skills necessary to address these issues in adult life,” Yasi told me Wednesday.
Supporters of the class and of Greenberg champion the curriculum and question the way the district addressed the complaint, especially its lack of transparency. They took their concerns to Wednesday’s School Board meeting; most of them were white and wearing green.
The basics I’ve learned from news reports and Greenberg supporters are that the parents of a senior, who is white, complained to the school in December but were not satisfied with the response and took their complaint to the district early this year.
The district suspended the class while it conducted an investigation, then allowed the class to continue, but without the race component.
The parents raised another complaint, saying their daughter was being harassed in retaliation. The district investigated and found Greenberg had not harassed the student, but that he had allowed other students to circulate an in-class petition supporting the course.
A district spokeswoman told The Seattle Times on Wednesday the transfer is not related to the course. The parents who brought the complaint have not commented publicly.
In its investigation, the district did not talk with other students or parents as far as supporters know.
This kind of quick, decisive action on a parental complaint about discomfort with a class seems out of the ordinary to me.
Yasi can’t imagine why the district acted as it did, but she said, “He’s obviously being punished. I just don’t know why.”
Also curious is that The Center School is an alternative school for arts and social engagement. Greenberg has taught the course in question for more than a decade, drawing praise from past and present students.
All seniors at the school are required to take the course, which covers social-equity issues. Students read and discuss a variety of books, they listen to speakers from various communities, and they discuss their own experiences.
Senior Zak Meyer told me that at first, “I felt uncomfortable because I’d never talked about these issues before, but I never felt intimidated.” He said Greenberg made sure every student’s thoughts were heard and respected. He said most of the 45 students in the two sections of the course are white.
Meyer, one of the most outspoken supporters of Greenberg and the course, said he learned a different way of looking at the world. “I’d been friends with the minority students in the class since freshman year, but I didn’t know about the subtle racism that happens every day,” he said.
Meyer, who is white, said Greenberg got across the idea that white people aren’t always intentionally discriminating. It’s not all about bad white people, but rather structures and behaviors that contribute to inequality. “What happens in the real world even if you don’t necessarily notice.”
Yasi and the other parents say in their letter that they are disappointed the district seems to be going against the social-justice values it claims are dear.
At the school’s fundraising auction this year, Yasi bid for and won lunch with the superintendent. She wants the superintendent to meet with the school community about this issue instead. We have to have the kinds of discussions that happened in Greenberg’s classroom, she said, or we’ll never solve our social problems. She’s right about that.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday.
Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org