As Charles Mudede has written, a Seattle public school teacher recently kicked his daughter out of class because her hair product (an olive-oil lotion) sickened the teacher. The girl was removed from an advanced placement class, where she was the only black student, and moved to a lower-placement class with more black kids. KIRO television reported part of the story over the weekend. The school district declined an interview request from Mudede because he is the student's father and attorneys are involved. But two school district attorneys agreed to speak to me.
"The district agrees that it is not acceptable for a teacher in our district to ask a student to leave a classroom for the reasons that this child was asked to leave,” says Kevin O’Neill, senior assistant general counsel for Seattle Public Schools, the attorney who is handling the case of Mudede’s daughter.
The district’s position, in a nutshell, is that the teacher erred by kicking out the student, but race wasn’t a factor and an investigation is underway. However, O’Neill also says he doesn’t know what exactly happened or “the reasons that this child was asked to leave.” Until the investigation is complete, he says, it’s unclear what was offensive about the hair product that reportedly made the teacher sick, why the district hadn’t done anything for three days, whether an incident like this had ever occurred before, whether anyone had spoken to the teacher about the incident, whether school district rules prohibit any cosmetics, or what current or future steps are required for the investigation.
But he insists race was not a factor. Any allegations of racial insensitivity or negligence are “wholly untrue,” O’Neill says, “because, well, because the district would not tolerate employment of a teacher that has racial animosity towards a student.”
How can O’Neill—who doesn’t even know if anyone has talked to the teacher or what is occurring in the investigation—be so certain about this one aspect? “Based on preliminary information I have, it is clear that the removal of the student, as inappropriate as it was, had to do with a health issue and not a racial issue,” he says. “To the extent of the health issues, what was said to the child, the circumstances, that is a matter that is still under investigation. Based on our preliminary investigation, it isn’t a result of racial animosity, as far as I understand.”
Sickening: The offending hair product
O’Neill says he can’t currently comment on the “health issue” involved. But he emphasizes, again and again, that the school district is doing everything possible to encourage this student to return to school. However, Charles notes that he and his wife haven’t wanted to return their child to school “until the teacher had medical proof that our daughter's hair or something in her hair was to blame for the [teacher’s] nausea. The last thing you want to happen to your daughter is for a teacher to faint or vomit at the mere sight of her.”
The parents reluctantly got involved after school hadn’t taken action for three days.
“What I understand is that the principal wasn’t aware the student was sent into another classroom,” says Faye Chess-Prentice, a school district attorney who handles personnel issues and was interviewed separately. “She said she was unaware of it. That might be why there is a delay, but that is just an assumption on my part.”