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Sacked security guard, mother outraged over alleged racism at Federal Way school
An African American man stood at the podium at a recent Federal Way school board meeting.
It wasn’t his first time to give public comment, it won’t be his last.
The president of Tacoma-based New Century Justice Network, Alton McDonald, looked school board members in the eyes as he filled his allotted three minutes with a story of alleged injustice, perceived racism and a call for change.
“People tend to put it under the rug,” McDonald said at the meeting. “’Oh, we can’t discuss racism or discrimination. Makes us feel very uncomfortable, very uneasy.’ But I want to let you know as an American citizen and a disabled American veteran, we have a duty, as myself, to make sure I raise these issues to the school board.”
McDonald told the board that because they are the leading body of Federal Way Public Schools, they should ensure the school system doesn’t become a liability.
“I know the district doesn’t want to pay millions of dollars out of your coffers to employees or students who are subjects of racism and discrimination in your school district,” he said.
McDonald cited an example of the perceived racism that occurred on November 2013 at Sacajawea Middle School.
An African American boy, then 12 years old in seventh grade, was allegedly removed from his math class by a white female teacher.
“He was doing nothing, he wanted out of class,” McDonald said.
Cilxusasqet Friedlander, the school’s security guard at the time, said he found the boy alone in a detention room - in school suspension - as he escorted another student there. After noticing there was no adult supervision, he asked the boy what he was doing, to which he replied “I was thrown in here,” said Friedlander during a phone interview with the Mirror.
Friedlander assumed the boy was exaggerating but when he looked at his face he saw he was serious.
Friedlander gave the boy permission to physically show him how he was handled.
“The student was grabbed by the collar bone and shoulder and by the elbow and pulled forward,” Friedlander said, noting it was odd because all the teachers had recently been trained on how to safely escort students.
This teacher did not do that, he said.
The boy pointed toward the teacher who handled him and Friedlander went to speak with her. She said the boy wasn’t listening and was being disruptive. She told him she touched him because he “wasn’t moving fast enough” for her, which was frustrating.
Friedlander went to the principal’s office and eventually told the assistant principal, principal and two counselors what happened and how he disapproved.
“I don’t understand why the teacher would have put her hands on a student and put him in an unsupervised room,” he said. “… I was told by that point by the principal that it’s an administrative deal.”
Friedlander returned to his job thinking the situation would be handled. Little did he know, the issue would arise again two months later.
Debra Stenberg, a spokeswoman for Federal Way Public Schools, said she cannot discuss personnel issues, but that district officials are aware of the complaint McDonald referenced.
“We go through a process, we take them seriously,” she said of the complaints. “We investigate, we investigate thoroughly. If the parent isn’t satisfied with the outcome, we hire a trained outside investigator who looks closely at the law and we follow the advice from legal counsel.”
Stenberg said the district went through both internal and external investigations in this matter. She also noted that it’s typical for parents to turn to an outside advocate, such as McDonald, who isn’t a resident of Federal Way, if they’re unsatisfied with the outcome of the investigations.
Gloria Butts, the mother of the student who was allegedly manhandled by his math teacher, said she feels the district is “mousing” her around.
So she decided to call police and file a report in January.
“I personally feel they didn’t do what they should have done, in regard to the case,” said Butts, who works at the school in the cafeteria. “If I look at it, if my son would have assaulted a teacher, he would have been expelled from school.”
Butts said the only consequence for the teacher was five days of paid administrative leave or a “paid vacation,” as she puts it.
“She should have been fired,” Butts said.
According to Friedlander, per Butt’s 911 call, a police officer showed up to ask him about the situation on Jan. 29.
The security guard told police he was told to stay out of the issue because it was a personnel issue, which surprised the officer, he said. The two went to the principal’s office to get more information on what had been done.
Friedlander was surprised to learn the assistant principal and police officer allegedly knew each other and had worked together at Todd Beamer High School.
“The assistant principal said the principal said she did an investigation, interviewed all 22 classmates in there,” he said. “They all said the teacher grabbed him by the backpack and escorted him to the solution room.”
But Friedlander said he and the officer gave the assistant principal a look like he was lying. Subsequently, the officer allegedly asked, “When have you ever known a group of people to say the same thing?”
Friedlander said the assistant principal just looked at him.
The principal told the officer the teacher took a few days off and the mother wasn’t informed of the repercussion because they “weren’t at liberty to tell the mother that type of information.”
Friedlander was again told to go back to patrolling the school’s perimeter.
And he was suspended/fired the next day.
“They tried to come up with some B.S. excuses, tried to say I failed the probationary period but everything they wrote was hearsay, slander and allegation,” he said. “They said staff and students feared me but I got along with all the students and staff.”
Friedlander said he has had minimal friction with a few staff members but those issues have since been resolved as of last fall.
“These individuals were racist,” he said, noting his Native American ethnicity. “But I kept trying to kill them with kindness. From the day I started working there I was treated like an outcast from the administrative team. I never tried to question them, only when I knew it was a safety violation.”
Friedlander appealed the termination and after several back-and-forth loopholes, he was eventually granted employment. His lawyer even found discrepancies in district officials’ testimonies during an appeal hearing, he said. But there’s no doubt in his mind that defending the African American student got him fired.
He has a list of other examples of alleged racism in the school as well.
Furthermore, Butts said her son has experienced more discrimination since the incident. She said he was allegedly singled out and was written up for sexual harassment after he started dancing around because he won a game against some female students.
His mother claims he’s gotten his phone taken away when there’s constantly “two white females on their phones all the time who don’t try to hide it.”
McDonald said the district covered the incident up and should have alerted police right away, since officials in education are considered mandated reporters.
“If you’re in a school and a child comes to you and said I was abused by my sibling, mother, father or neighbor, teachers are mandated reporters to report this to police right away,” he said. “If they don’t do that then they are violating the law that is there to protect children. So this is a case for example. You have a child that was in school, a black child, at one of your junior high schools and a teacher assaulted him. The principal did not report the incident to the police. No one reported the incident to anyone. They kept it hush-hush.”
McDonald claims the teacher even admitted to the incident but no one did much at all.
Butts said her son told her about the incident before the principal did, which was about two hours later.
McDonald said Butts didn’t know she could call police at the time, which is why she made contact with him a couple of months ago. While she eventually did file a police report, prosecutors would not press charges.
“I’m going to push it all the way to the end,” Butts said. “I know they’re wrong. The underlying things they do are technically harassing him.”
Butts said she recently filed another complaint with interim Superintendent Sally McLean on June 16.
The Mirror has requested public documents regarding the case at Sacajawea.
McDonald said he’s been an advocate for several other black employees who have been affected by alleged racism in the Federal Way school district.
“This problem has been going on for sometime now,” he said. “It’s a longstanding issue at the Federal Way Public Schools district. It’s been here for a long time.”
McDonald ended his comment by telling the board he was appalled because he knows “each of you who sits on the board may have children yourselves, may have nieces and nephews and you would not want your nieces or your child to go to school and be assaulted by a teacher.”
“I pray that as I speak today that you look at these issues and address them because if not, the district will become a liability to the greater community,” he said.