Families allege racial discrimination by University Place School District

Three families have sued the University Place School District, alleging that their children were the victims of racial discrimination while they attended Curtis High School.

Jamal Welch and Elijah West, along with a third student identified only as a minor named T.W., along with their parents, are plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed June 9 in Pierce County Superior Court.

The families say their sons were subjected to racial name-calling, racially discriminatory grading practices, and instructors who made disparaging racial comments and who openly minimized civil rights issues. The parents contend that when they tried to bring their complaints to the attention of school officials, they were ignored or rebuffed.

University Place Superintendent Patti Banks said the lawsuit makes “a number of broad, non-specific claims of discriminatory behavior which we believe to be unfounded.” She said the plaintiffs did not provide specific names of individuals who allegedly made derogatory comments.

In the complaint filed with the court, the plaintiffs mention a teacher who they say discriminated against two of the youths. The complaint says that when West was enrolled in the teacher’s class, the teacher refused to help him and was hostile toward students of color. West was the only such student in the class.

The lawsuit describes a situation in which West was being marked down for missing assignments that he said he completed and turned in. He and his mother began emailing assignments in before they were due. But the lawsuit contends that the instructor continued to mark the assignments as missing.

T.W. contends in the complaint that the same teacher discriminated against him after he was injured playing sports and had to miss more than three weeks of school for medical treatment. Despite working to keep on top of homework assignments during the period, he was given D’s and F’s in class participation points, the lawsuit claims.

Banks said the teacher was accused of making a racist comment in January 2014 and that the district responded immediately, placing the teacher on leave the same day. The teacher subsequently resigned.

Banks said the district also hired an outside investigator to review the teacher’s grading practices.

“No evidence of any discrimination in grading was found in the investigation,” Banks said. “The district’s actions in response to this incident were prompt and thorough, and demonstrate our commitment to take all complaints of discrimination seriously.”

Welch says in the lawsuit that he was subjected to racist insults while walking in school hallways or eating lunch, but that when he reached out to school authorities for help, the district failed to act. The lawsuit says he was instead told that the racial slurs would “make him stronger.”

All three plaintiffs cite negative effects from their treatment, including stress, depression and falling grade point averages. The families are asking for damages to be determined during a trial.

Banks said University Place School District is committed to creating an environment free from discrimination.

“We are very proud of the fact that our African-American and other students of color thrive in UPSD,” she said.

She cited graduation rates and other measures that show UP’s students of color outperform their peers elsewhere in the state and nation. She said nearly 200 families of students of color who live outside University Place School District choose to attend school there.

“These facts are far more representative of the culture of the district than the allegations in the lawsuit,” Banks said.