A Spokane woman is petitioning schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger to resign, claiming she “consistently” has failed to address discrimination issues in the school district.
The petition stems from an incident Aug. 31 when Virla Spencer’s 15-year-old son, Cameron Wilder, was detained for trespassing at Shaw Middle School. Spencer claims her son was targeted for being African American. She said officials offered to drop charges if she agreed not to sue.
Redinger responded to the issue in an email: “I think my history of working to create change and improve outcomes in education for students of color in Spokane speaks for itself.”
Redinger said Wilder was never arrested nor charged and that the “incident was reviewed by staff” and legal action wasn’t pursued. There was no deal to drop the charges, she said.
Spokane police spokeswoman Teresa Fuller said the case was never referred to juvenile court.
The Center for Justice, where Spencer works, filed a racial discrimination complaint with the Washington Human Rights Commission on Oct. 20. Spencer said she has more than 200 signatures on her petition seeking Redinger’s resignation.
Wilder, a Rogers High School student, was going to pick up his younger sister at Shaw Middle School on Aug. 31, Spencer said. When he arrived around 2:30 p.m. school had not yet ended for the day. Wilder and a Hispanic friend who accompanied him tried to use the bathroom inside the school and were told to leave by a resource officer. The two then walked around to another entrance and tried to enter there. At that time, both were handcuffed and taken to the principal’s office.
“To say that I don’t care about 10,000 students does not reflect the work I, our teachers or our community partners are doing in our schools every day,” Redinger said.
Spencer said that in a surveillance video she obtained via a public records request, numerous white children were waiting near the school.
“Why didn’t they all get charged with criminal trespass?” she said.
Spencer also said school officials did not contact her about her son being detained. She found out when he told her.
The next day, Spencer met with Wendy Bleecker, director of youth services, and James Wilburn, who oversees community and parent involvement for the district. They apologized for the incident, she said.
In a subsequent phone conversation, according to Spencer, school officials offered to drop charges against Wilder if Spencer agreed not to sue.
“Are you telling me they are using my son as a pawn?” she said. “I was very disturbed by this.”
Spencer said she also contacted the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU representatives tentatively are scheduled to come to Spokane on Nov. 17.
Wilburn said Spencer was never asked to refrain from suing in exchange for dropping the charges, but that he did ask if she’d consider not suing. He also spoke with Mark Sterk, the director of transportation and security, about the incident.
“Any parent would be upset if you did this to her child,” Wilburn said.
While he thinks the resource officer made a mistake, he doesn’t think it was racially motivated.
“I don’t think this was race,” he said. “I think if it had been any student from another school they would have asked him to leave.”
Wilburn said he believes there are racial disparity issues in the district, but he thinks they are being addressed and that blaming Redinger is a mistake.
“I don’t think we can blame the superintendent for problems that existed probably before she was born,” he said. “I don’t think if you get rid of the superintendent you get rid of the problem.”
This is not the first dispute Spencer has had with Spokane Public Schools. In 2005, she petitioned for the resignation of then-Superintendent Brian Benzel and filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. According to Spencer, one of her daughters wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom, while white children were.
That triggered a federal discrimination investigation that later was closed after Spencer withdrew her complaint. Several months later, the district banned Spencer from school property for a year, citing her aggression and profanity. A year later, in 2006, she sued the district, asking for damages stemming from her original claim. That suit was dismissed.
Spencer said she won’t meet with district officials until she receives representation from the ACLU.
“I just don’t understand how you don’t give (the two boys) the benefit of the doubt?” she said. “It was the first day of school. The summer was long.”
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