Black students settle discrimination lawsuit against UP School District for $450,000

Three families of African American students who attended Curtis High School in University Place have settled a lawsuit alleging they faced racial slurs and unfair practices.
Three families of African American students who attended Curtis High School in University Place have settled a lawsuit alleging they faced racial slurs and unfair practices. Thinkstock photo

Three families have settled a lawsuit that included allegations of racial discrimination by the University Place School District.

Under terms of the settlement agreement, the school district will pay former Curtis High School students Jamal Welch, Elijah West and Tyrell Wells and their parents a total of $450,000.

The money will come from a statewide risk pool, made up of member school districts and other educational organizations.

The lawsuit was filed in 2015. In legal documents, the plaintiffs, who are African American, say they were subjected to racial name-calling, discriminatory grading practices and other forms of harassment. The parents say that when they complained about the treatment of their children to school authorities, they were ignored or rebuffed. All three students are now over 18 and have left the school district.

The legal agreement states that it is a settlement of disputed claims, not an admission of liability by the school district. In court filings, the school district denied most of the allegations in the lawsuit.

The settlement agreement also prohibits both sides from commenting on the case to news media. Material for this news story came from documents filed with the court and obtained through a public records request to the school district as well as from previous comments by the district.

Documents filed by the students’ attorneys describe a toxic environment at Curtis, where they say other students regularly called them “the n-word,” and the three boys had to focus “on surviving each and every school day without having a mental or emotional reaction.”

Wells told a teacher when someone wrote a racial epithet on his desk. “As time went on, he would erase the slur, then someone would re-write it,” documents claim.

Welch said in a written declaration to the court that he transferred to University Place schools from Tacoma seeking better preparation for college in a school with a reputation for strong academics. But he eventually transferred back to Tacoma’s Wilson High School.

In the document, he spoke about the effects of what he experienced at Curtis: “To this day, I have lingering stress and anxiety from my Curtis experience. While before I was easygoing and trusting of people, now I find that I hang back and analyze people before trusting them. I also am more defensive than I used to be, and feel like I need to justify or explain who I am since I learned at Curtis that people have stereotypes and biases against me.”

According to state education statistics, just under 10 percent of the more than 1,400 students at Curtis High are black.

The students said their experiences at the school made them feel stressed and anxious, and took a toll on their grades.

One incident recounted by Wells involved former Curtis teacher Karen Macy, who taught American Sign Language. According to court documents, she wrote her home address on the board during a lesson on giving directions in sign language. Students teased her, joking that they might egg her house if they knew her home address.

She responded with words to the effect that “no one would do that, except for (Wells,) because he’s black,” according to court documents.

Attempts to contact Macy for comment were unsuccessful. Macy resigned from her teaching job in 2014.

Former University Place Superintendent Patti Banks (who retired in 2016) told The News Tribune in 2015 that the school district placed the teacher on leave while it investigated the incident, along with allegations that her grading practices were discriminatory. But Banks said in 2015 that no evidence of discrimination in grading was uncovered.

West’s mom said she tried to help her son, who was being marked down for missing assignments that he’d turned in. She would electronically scan the assignments and email them to the teacher before they were due, to ensure they would be marked fairly. But the assignments were still marked as missing, according to court documents.

Current Superintendent Jeff Chamberlin, citing the legal settlement, said he could not comment on allegations in the lawsuit. But asked how the district might prevent future problems for students, he pointed to the district’s support and mentoring programs.

“We have a number of programs to support our students that we think achieve great results,” he said.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo

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