At an explosive community meeting on Thursday evening about teacher misconduct, Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau apologized to families.
“I do apologize for failing our students in this effort and a lot of the things that have been going on,” she said.
For many seated in the Garfield High School auditorium, the public apology came too late. It had been 20 days since KUOW published an investigation outlining several cases where the school district disciplined teachers for abusing students but let them stay in the classroom.
“It wasn’t enough,” said Maryam Hassan, a parent. “More needs to be said.”
Throughout the over-two-hour meeting, organized by School Board members, many sharply criticized Juneau and the district for their silence in the wake of these revelations. Juneau has the power to terminate an employee for misconduct, but a teacher — now on administrative leave after KUOW made his case public — was permitted to teach at Washington Middle School this year after district officials found he had punched an eighth grader in the jaw at another school.
Juneau was joined onstage by Clover Codd, the district’s human resources chief, and Seattle School Board members Zachary DeWolf and Brandon Hersey. For most of the meeting, they listened as dozens, many of them Washington Middle parents, brought stories of unaddressed child abuse by educators and demanded answers.
“I do not want a firewall of district staff standing in front of her, where she gets to not say anything or respond,” one parent remarked at Juneau. “We want to hear from you, ma’am.”
One parent told Juneau to stop sending “bullshit letters,” referencing an email the superintendent sent earlier in the day to Washington and Meany Middle School families, which said school principals followed district policies around discipline related to the Washington Middle teacher who is now on administrative leave. Juneau had already faced scrutiny at Washington for the district’s plans to change gifted education there.
The district leaders sat looking somber, scribbling into notebooks and nodding. Once it was their turn to speak, Hersey reached for his microphone but the crowd demanded Juneau speak first. She obliged.
She made her apology. Then, she added, “I will commit to do better by this community, by the school systems, by the teachers, by leadership, and of course by our families and students.”
“But how?” someone called out.
“We will be better at communication,” Juneau responded, and listed off other items: improving reporting systems, a reset of the Human Resources Department and expectations for adults. “Those are the commitments I can make tonight.”
Codd followed, echoing some of the same statements she made at a School Board meeting the previous evening: That she knew her department was struggling, and requested an external review last year to figure out how to improve a backlog of open misconduct cases. Codd has been in her role for four years.
Hersey, the only Black man on the stage that evening — when much of the conversation was about the racist abuse of Black children — did a lot of the talking. Several in the audience remarked that wasn’t fair.
“I’m concerned that many people coming to the mic had questions for the superintendent,” said Marissa McDowell, who attended the meeting. “But he was the main one addressing the crowd.”
When asked about that observation, Hersey said that while the district officials were receptive to his and DeWolf’s idea for the meeting, he thought they could have answered questions from the audience more directly. He added, though, that he didn’t believe stating policy solutions that same evening was going to help.
Lisa Rivera-Smith, a School Board member who attended but did not speak at the meeting, said she urged Juneau to send a public letter following the investigation. A week later, when Juneau drafted a response to all district staff, Rivera-Smith said she encouraged her to post that publicly. That never happened.
Board members haven’t met to discuss how they would ensure the district takes the appropriate action. Their biggest levers are the ability to pass and propose funding, commission an audit, and hire or fire superintendents. Any discussions of individual teacher-misconduct cases would happen in private session.
To address concerns that principals weren’t responding to parents’ reports, SPS staff created an email address for the public to send tips about teacher misconduct: firstname.lastname@example.org.
They will also start automatically providing principals with complete employee files during the hiring process this summer, which would include misconduct records.
The review Codd asked for last year pointed to the HR Department’s “fragmented, manual, and paper-based case management” process.
Since starting her job in July 2018, Juneau has made community engagement one of her key issues, spending a significant amount of her first year in town-hall meetings, which she was praised for. She can sometimes be seen walking around and shaking hands with people in the room before and after public meetings.
After this meeting ended, some School Board members stayed to speak to families. Juneau rose from her chair and headed toward the backstage curtains.