Members of the Seattle King County NAACP say custodians at South Seattle College are subject to harassment and bullying, but the college says that’s not the case.
Describing the South Seattle College campus as a “toxic environment,” members of the Seattle King County NAACP alleged cases of harassment, discrimination and bullying during a news conference on the campus Friday.
Drawings of swastikas and racial epithets have appeared on bathroom walls at the West Seattle school, and some employees’ cars have been vandalized, said Gerald Hankerson, president of the Seattle King County NAACP.
“People truly don’t feel safe,” said Hankerson.
He said there’s been a sharp increase in racist incidents at other community and four-year colleges in King County and throughout the state, but incidents at South Seattle College represented some of the worst cases. The news conference was held jointly with the Washington Federation of State Employees, the union that represents some employees at the college.
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In a written response released Friday morning, South Seattle College officials disputed the charge that the college environment is discriminatory to people of color and touted its diverse enrollment, which is nearly 60 percent minority.
In the statement, the college described how it hired an independent law firm last year to assess the work environment after the NAACP raised concerns in October, and said that the firm found no evidence of discrimination or bullying at the college. In a later statement, the college also said the swastika incident was addressed immediately and shared with the campus community.
Hankerson questioned the findings of that report, and said some employees did not speak to investigators out of fear of retaliation.
Three employees, all members of the custodial staff, spoke about incidents in which they felt they were subject to discrimination.
Custodian Koss Girre, who has worked at the college for 11 years and is Muslim, said she’s been the subject of anti-Muslim hate speech, and her car has been repeatedly vandalized in the school’s parking lot.
But when she asked the school to help find the vandals by using school security cameras or other means, she said she was told the school couldn’t help. Girre said the latest incident happened in September, but school officials said they only knew of an incident from several years ago.
Another custodial employee, Dione Mack, said she asked for a small motorized vehicle to help her transport supplies — which can sometimes weigh as much as 40 pounds — around the various buildings. Instead, she said, she was offered a motorized scooter with a trash can bungee-corded to the back, an offer she described as bullying and demeaning.
The college said the offer was made by a co-worker, not a supervisor, who characterized it as a “lighthearted joke.” A grievance filed by Mack was resolved through the grievance process, according to the college.
Hankerson said another employee — who was at the news conference, but declined to speak — was not given physical accommodations to allow her to do her job while she was pregnant. She later lost her child, he said.
In the college’s statement, the school described two cases raised by the NAACP last fall that involved students — one involved a violent threat; the other was a complaint about a grade. After reviewing the cases, the school “determined that the process was correctly followed in each instance.” In the threat case, the college’s decision was upheld in an appeal, and in the case about the grade, the student was provided with information on how to challenge the grade. The school said it could not provide more details of the investigations because of federal privacy concerns.
The college also said it reviewed issues raised by the NAACP regarding employees, and determined the process was correctly followed.
Rita Green, educational chair of the Seattle King County NAACP, outlined a list of 11 demands aimed at fixing the issues the group sees. The list included cultural competency training for all staff, as well as better support for black students. She said the group wants to discuss the issues with the college’s board of trustees during its March 10 meeting.
Green said about 100 South Seattle College students and employees have signed a petition calling for “a safe environment free of bullying, harassment and discrimination.”
According to the petition, the college’s administration and human resources department have been told of the issues, “but choose to be complacent in the face of a toxic campus culture that has been created by the lack of enforcement around ongoing problems on campus.”
Green said the NAACP tries to resolve most issues in private, but took the step of holding a news conference because those efforts have not worked at South Seattle College.
She said the NAACP has seen a 75 percent increase in the number of complaints about discrimination on college campuses across King County in the last year.