3 decades after desegregation, students say race a factor in unequal punishment

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SEATTLE - It's been three decades since schools were desegregated, but Seattle Public Schools admits discrimination is still a problem in its classrooms.

KIRO 7's David Ham investigates why students say they're being given unequal punishment and how the feds are now getting involved.

There's a fight brewing at one of Seattle's largest African American Churches, Mount Zion Baptist.

The fight is over discrimination.

Reverend Aaron Williams is rallying pastors of several local churches to speak out against Seattle Public Schools for disciplining black students more harshly and more often than white students.

"We, as a community, see these blatant acts of discrimination that we must make our voice heard,” said Williams.

Jess Croone, 10, is a 5th grader at Thurgood Marshall Elementary.

"When Caucasian kids say stuff like cuss words or talk back to their teachers, they don’t really get any consequences whatsoever. Whatsoever,” said Croone.  "I feel mistreated. I just feel completely mistreated.”

She said she tries hard to be a good student.

Ham: “Do you feel like you are being treated differently because you are African American?

Jess: “Yes."

Jess's mother, Rose Wallace-Croone, says she's constantly meeting with teachers disputing her daughter's punishments.

 She fought successfully to remove two suspensions from her eighth grade son's records for fights he says he didn't start.

"So here we are, in 2013, dealing with foolishness,” said Wallace-Croone.

Last May, the Department of Education launched an investigation into Seattle Public Schools to see if teachers are really discriminating against students.

In March, SPS admitted to KIRO 7 the disparity is severe.

"It’s unacceptable, to be honest, it's not something we're proud of. We own it,” said a district spokesperson.

From 2006 through 2012, black students from elementary to high school were suspended two or three times more often than white students, three to four times more often than Hispanic students, and up to six times more often than Asian or Pacific Islander students.

"So to see my children have to go through this, and what my parents and my grandparents and my great grandparents struggle with? It’s ridiculous,” said Wallace-Croone.

KIRO 7 checked back in with Seattle public schools, but they declined to go on camera for this story. A spokesperson did tell KIRO that even before the Department of Education's review, two separate committees were formed to look into the issue, but no recommendations were ever announced.

The ACLU believes the disparity is connected to a lack of cultural sensitivity.

"It’s when you look at subjective things like being disrespectful, being disobedient, being loud , bad attitude -- that's when the racial disparity kicks in, when it's subjective,” said Linda Mangel with the ACLU.

Rod Guevara was a middle school teacher for Seattle Public Schools for 11 years.

"Many of these students come from backgrounds that are not always favorable, but it's their responsibility to make sure that every student is properly taught and educated,” said Guevara.

Guevara said teachers were briefed on cultural training, but it was never followed up.

“It’s almost a yearly problem, but it's not addressed,” said Guevara.

Now, the district is being forced to address it.

Not only is the Department of Education keeping SPS and Superintendent Jose Banda accountable, so are community leaders.

"We really wanted to put his feet to the fire as it relates to the discriminatory practices -- primarily African American students,” said Rev. Aaron Williams.

There's no timeline as to when the feds will finish the investigation.

SPS says there's also no timeline as to when any recommendations to fix this problem will be put into place.