Federal Way schools reach agreement with Department of Justice over complaints of harassment

District was investigated over claims that officials “failed to respond promptly and appropriately.”

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington reached a settlement agreement with Federal Way Public Schools today to resolve an investigation into allegations of peer-on-peer harassment about religion and national origin.

According to a Nov. 12 press release, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into the Federal Way school district following the complaints of families regarding the district’s failure to respond “promptly and appropriately to numerous students’ complaints of harassment, including complaints from Muslim students and a Latino student that they were subjected to serious and repeated verbal and physical harassment.”

Complaints alleged that Federal Way students had repeatedly been targeted by their peers with verbal and physical harassment because of their religion or national origin, and that the district did not respond adequately to the students’ complaints about the harassment, the department said.

The harassment instances mentioned in the settlement occurred at five schools between 2013 and 2015, said Kassie Swenson, chief of communications for Federal Way Public Schools.

The DOJ notified Federal Way Public Schools in the 2016-17 school year.

“In 2015, when the current administration started at the district, they recognized the need for district-wide systems and structures versus a site-based approach to ensure a commitment to equity at all sites,” Swenson said. “As a result, FWPS launched the Strategic Plan, setting common values and goals to guide decisions at all sites.”

The department also found the district failed to properly communicate with parents and guardians who are not English language proficient about the complaints, the release said.

Federal Way school district officials “worked cooperatively” with the United States to ensure appropriate protections were put in place for all students and families.

The settlement agreement requires the district to work with a consultant to review and update its anti-harassment policies; ensure that it responds quickly and effectively to student complaints of harassment; and train staff members how to properly communicate with non-English proficient parents and guardians, according to the Department of Justice.

“School districts must never ignore harassment of students because of their faith or national origin,” said Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division Eric S. Dreiband. “Discrimination in schools based on religion or national origin violates federal law and is antithetical to our nation’s values … In this country, all people are entitled to be treated with respect and decency and without regard to their faith or their ancestral background.”

As part of Federal Way’s new vision brought forward by Superintendent Dr. Tammy Campbell’s arrival in 2015, every year for the last five years, FWPS offered and intensified staff training on cultural competence and racial equity for all staff to achieve equitable outcomes for scholars in all areas, Swenson said.

This includes cultural competency and racial equity training for all staff every year, a Racial Equity Policy, expansion of language access trainings and resources, incorporating student voices and more.

Actions agreed upon in the settlement are “in line with the changes that were already implemented as a result of the vision outlined in the Strategic Plan,” she added.

The settlement agreement recognized that FWPS had taken, and continues to take, significant steps to ensure the safety of all students, she said.

U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington Brian T. Moran said he is encouraged by Federal Way’s willingness to take immediate action to ensure students at all of its schools are free from this form of harassment and bullying.

“Every student should be able to attend school without fear of being harassed and bullied because of his or her skin color or religious beliefs,” he said.

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