A Federal Way parent is suing the Federal Way school district for allegedly violating her First Amendment rights and racial profiling.
Katherine Williams claims she was trying to defend her son from what she believed to be improper treatment, after the district placed her elementary-age son in special education. She tried to persuade the school district to re-evaluate whether his disability prevented him from attending general education classes and completing general education school work.
Williams believes the district refers African-American children to special education without properly testing them, according to the federal lawsuit documents. Williams also said her son’s special education classroom and instructional assignments were meant to punish him and were not there to help further his education.
“Ms. Williams had been actively advocating for her child’s rights with the Federal Way school district and felt her complaints were not being taken seriously or investigated at all,” said Ernest Saadiq Morris, Williams’s attorney, who filed the civil lawsuit on Dec. 15. “She also felt that there is a difference in how African-American children are treated at the schools in that the schools are quick to put them in special education classes without properly assessing their abilities.”
On Dec. 15, the district issued a criminal trespass notice against Williams that banned her from district-owned or controlled properties for a period of one year.
“There is not a very high standard for issuing these notices,” Morris said. “The school itself, acting on behalf of the school district, can use the city police department to deal with parents like Ms. Williams when they themselves should be dealing with a disagreement or conflict.”
Morris explained that police have no knowledge of the nature of the disagreement between the parents and school when they are called.
“They tend to take the allegations of the school at face value and offer no sufficient right for the parents to be heard,” he said.
Williams felt the trespass notice took away her right to educational advocacy for her son. She also stated it disallowed her to exercise the First Amendment rights of African American and other non-white parents with an unpopular or negative viewpoint regarding Federal Way Public Schools.
According to the lawsuit, the district “used threat of police force and criminal prosecution against her without due process or probable cause, motivated in part by (Williams’s) perceived race and no other facts or circumstances, which otherwise justified their actions.”
“The criminal trespass notice made Ms. Williams feel she was being cut off by police power outside of her son’s school and that is inherently unfair,” Morris said. “This restricts free speech rights by parents in the future because they might always be worried the school can arrest them, just for saying the wrong thing too many times.”
The lawsuit documents point out the district is obligated to follow Title VI, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. Williams said they did not adhere to this law.
The lawsuit claims this caused Williams to “suffer tremendous harm and public humiliation in that she has been and will continue to be subjected to the district’s practice of race-based discrimination in the absence of judicial intervention.”
Williams says her husband was also affected by the criminal trespass notice because he now feels unsafe going to his son’s school for any reason.
“The father, who also was just as much of a critic about what was happening to his son, feels that his free speech is also under threat as well because he knows that as a household he has already received this criminal trespass,” Morris said. “This nips in the bud any type of communication with the school district because of a fear of being arrested or stopped by police.”
Debra Stenberg, a district spokeswoman, said it is rare for schools to trespass a parent.
“When we trespass someone it’s more often someone that has nothing to do with the school,” she said. “It’s either someone who is on school property at 2 a.m. or being actively disruptive or dangerous.”
Stenberg said the schools do not issue trespass notices to parents easily.
“With a parent, the bar is pretty high when we trespass because we want them to be involved in our school and in their child’s education,” she said. “Our highest priority is the safety of our students and staff. If we were to trespass a parent or guardian, it would be for a substantial disruption, such as them refusing to follow check-in or check-out procedures or threatening a staff member.”
Williams claims both school officials and law officers failed to help her. She tried to work with the district on the disagreement between the schools and her idea regarding her son’s education and felt they didn’t respond to her concerns.
The lawsuit says the district is liable for failing to adequately train or supervise school officials and law enforcement officers with respect to criminal trespass-related matters, which is “deliberate indifference” to the First Amendment rights of parents advocating on any school district property, particularly those advocating for their child’s public education.
Stenberg says parents are issued a written warning with a list of detailed instructions on expected behavior before they receive a trespass.
“The trespass would be a consequence of not complying with information in that letter and if a person disagrees with their warning, they can appeal it,” Stenberg said. “Ultimately we have to be cognizant of the safety and security and maintain a positive learning environment for our students.”
Williams does not believe the district distributes trespasses fairly.
“The district is not using the criminal trespass in a way that is reasonable and fair,” Morris said.
But the civil suit against the district is not just about Williams, he added.
“Ms. Williams is doing this on behalf of herself, but also for all African-American parents,” Morris said. “She feels the district needs to stop their bias against African-American families. She is also doing this for the public’s interest to stop police authority use in educational disputes.”
Federal Way Public Schools has 20 days after they’ve been served to respond to the lawsuit.