In early May, a teacher at Van Asselt Elementary School in Seattle called the police. She told the dispatcher who answered that a fifth grader threatened to beat her up.
The student is black, she said, between 10 and 11 years old, an inch shy of 5 feet tall. No weapons. The teacher, age 27, was white. When police showed up at the school, the teacher decided not to press charges because she feared retaliation by the school administration, which had recommended other ways to react. Seattle police closed the case, and it was not forwarded to the King County Prosecutor’s Office.
Last week, a Facebook page run by a group of people who say they are Seattle school-district employees posted audio of the teacher’s conversation with a dispatcher. “This teacher wielded her white fragility and racial bias like a weapon with no accountability,” the post with the audio stated.
The visit from police cast a “heavy” mood over the school, which is 40% black, teacher Megan Isakson said. But it also led the way for a conversation about when it’s appropriate to involve police for a disciplinary issue.
In a statement, Seattle Public Schools spokesman Tim Robinson acknowledged that racial bias in discipline is an issue in schools and called it an “unfortunate” incident. He said the district’s discipline policy “outlines our collective commitment” to address disproportionality.
Since hearing about the incident, parents are calling for district leaders to have renewed conversations on bias in student discipline. Manuela Slye and other advocates say the teacher’s impulse to involve police over a behavioral dispute — especially with a student so young — sets a harmful precedent.
“This screams school-to-prison pipeline,” said Slye, who is president of Seattle Council PTSA, a citywide parent-teacher association. She would like to see the district take immediate action, provide more de-escalation training and establish a protocol for when or if to involve law enforcement.
The Seattle Times was not able to make contact with the family before press time, and the teacher declined multiple interview requests. School Board President Leslie Harris said Wednesday that the district is conducting an investigation into the incident. The teacher wasn’t named by the school district, the police report redacted her name, and The Seattle Times typically does not name those identified as victims on police reports without their consent.
When the teacher wouldn’t allow the student to leave her classroom, the student allegedly told his teacher that he was going to “beat the [expletive] out of her,” and that he didn’t care that she was a woman, according to a police report from the incident.
The student puffed his chest and walked toward her, the teacher said, but never raised his fists. She told the dispatcher the student was under control, but she said she still didn’t feel safe at the school.
“It’s a non-emergency, I need to file a police report,” she said.
When police arrived at the school, the teacher appeared nervous, fiddled with her ID and asked for a union representative, an officer noted.
In 2015, the most recent set of data available from the federal U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, black students made up 15.4% of Seattle’s general student population, but 26.7% of their schools’ referrals to law enforcement. White students made up 45.6% of enrollment, and 27.8% of law-enforcement referrals.
This Monday, Huyen Lam, the school’s principal, sent a letter to school staff and families saying she was “aware that the incident was being held up as an example of racial bias in the community.” After the event, she wrote, the staff discussed the implications of involving police and the school’s responsibility to disrupt racist systems.
In an email, district spokesman Robinson said that the school “resolved” the issue with the family in early May. Robinson did not specify what that resolution entailed, though he did say it didn’t involve money. The district isn’t sure whether the student is still enrolled because the district’s data-management system is being updated.
Cases like these are rare at the elementary-school level, but not unheard of, said Jimmy Hung, who heads the Juvenile Division of the King County Prosecutor’s Office.
“Our American culture and society have become too reliant on our criminal-justice system being the means of accountability,” Hung said. “When I was younger, if I was being stupid, the adults handled it, the schools handled it, and there wasn’t the idea that the police would be called.”
Robinson said the principal of the school recommended alternatives to law enforcement, but the teacher decided to call the police anyway — an action protected by her union’s contract. The district has a policy governing racially disproportionate discipline, but no official protocol for when schools should involve the police.
He declined to share details about what those alternatives were “out of respect for the educator’s privacy.”
School Board President Harris said she thinks training would serve the district better than a blanket policy on when to call police.
Sean Goode, director of Choose 180, a diversion program that works with teens who have committed misdemeanors and kids at risk of discipline in schools, said educators should view disruptive student behavior through the lens of public health, diagnosing the underlying problem instead of treating the symptoms.
“If a young person threatens a teacher, we need to get to the root cause — what happened leading up to that moment? What happened that morning? Do you know what they had to overcome to just come to that space?” Goode said. “Law enforcement’s role is not to heal or be restorative — it’s to suppress and remove a threat … Come on now.”
He sees this incident as emblematic of a larger problem: Even at a young age, black boys and girls are perceived as less innocent and more threatening than other children, according to research. In Seattle and other places, the disproportionality can start as young as kindergarten.
After a series of Seattle Times articles explored this gap in 2015, the School Board adopted a policy banning out-of-school suspensions for elementary-school students for disruptive behavior or rule-breaking. The district also has hired staff focused on restorative justice work.
A recent national survey of 1,200 teachers conducted by the RAND Corp., a research firm, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning Washington, D.C.-based think tank, showed that while these practices are helpful, most still believe they should be balanced with some forms of exclusionary discipline. More than half of teachers surveyed said their school still handled discipline inconsistently, and 48% said they found themselves “putting up with offending behavior in the classroom due to a lack of administrative support.”
Isakson and Alma Alonzo, a teacher who worked at the school until this summer, both served on Van Asselt’s racial equity team. Except for a detective who comes in to build relationships with students and help with chess club, they said, the school doesn’t have regular contact with law enforcement.
“It’s really disheartening to have this incident as a representation of our school,” Isakson said. “We all have a lot of work to do to improve our classrooms.”
Juanita Galloway, a retired teacher who taught at Van Asselt for a decade, said the school’s teachers were among the best she worked with over the course of her 30-year career. She said she understands that some students can pose a challenge — but that’s part of the job.
“Children bring their experiences to school,” Galloway said. “Knives and guns require police, but talking back does not.”