Students at Washington Middle School last week did what parents and administrators have failed to do for years: remove a dangerously abusive and demeaning teacher from the classroom.
They’re hoping he never comes back.
But union work rules and bureaucratic barriers baked into Seattle Public Schools and most other public school systems have allowed teacher James Johnson to evade serious consequences for repeated, documented student abuse, from sexy talk with middle-school girls to fist fights with students in class, KUOW reports.
Johnson’s situation isn’t unique, and when students at Washington Middle School learned about the television station’s investigation into his prior misconduct, they decided to put an end to the insanity.
“They were all like, ‘Yeah, this is totally wrong. We need to fix this. He’s been doing this for a while,’” seventh-grader Sarah Lessig said.
District officials transferred Johnson to Washington this year after he punched a student at nearby Meany Middle School in the face in 2018. That incident involved a disagreement between Johnson, who is black, and a black student, with the two calling each other “ni**er.” In a math class with 32 students, Johnson got in the teen’s face and taunted, prompting the student to push Johnson away.
Investigators found Johnson then grabbed the boy by the shirt, slugged him in the face, and then tossed him in the hallway.
“Everyone was kind of just shocked,” Keenan McAuliffe, a student in the class at the time, told KUOW. “I was like – what the heck? I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Johnson wasn’t fired, but instead received a five-day unpaid suspension, along with conflict management training. A closer look at Johnson’s work history revealed a disturbing pattern of abuse and transfers dating back more than a decade. He was disciplined for shoving a student into a locker at Clover Park School District in 2004, cited for anger and profanity in the classroom in the Kent School District in 2008, and repeatedly accused by students and staff of inappropriate sexual harassment toward teen girls, according to the news site.
With each infraction, Johnson received a slap on the wrist or special settlement to move on to another school district. Student Elinor Earle told KUOW she was shocked when Johnson returned to the classroom after punching her classmate in the face.
“How does someone get away with assaulting a minor?” she questioned.
Two days after his return, Johnson was suspended again over allegations he sexually harassed and threatened students – charges that were later verified by district investigators.
“He had touched girls on the shoulders and legs and made them uncomfortable, the district found,” according to KUOW. “He had baked a batch of brownies for one girl, and investigator wrote, and called female students ‘sweetheart,’ ‘honey,’ and ‘baby.’ A student who had gotten help from him at lunchtime said she stopped going ‘because he “creeped” her out,’ the investigator reported.”
When Lessig and other students at Washington Middle School learned about Johnson’s history last week, it was déjà vu all over again.
“She said that Johnson recently jabbed one classmate hard in the throat. Also, Lessig claims he called students names and made fun of their physical features, and wouldn’t stop touching them on the back and shoulders – even when they asked him to stop,” KUOW reports.
On Friday, Lessig and about nine other students lined up outside of the school’s main office to file fresh complaints against Johnson and highlight how school officials had previously dismissed their concerns about the teacher.
By the end of the day, Johnson was escorted from the building, though he will continue to receive pay while under yet another investigation for the abuse allegations, his third such paid suspension in the last two years, KUOW reports.
During one 13-month period Johnson worked only two days, but collected an estimated $134,000 from Seattle Public Schools.
Johnson is one of numerous educators in Seattle Public Schools who have managed to continue their career despite overwhelming evidence they don’t deserve to lead a classroom, and he’s far from alone.
The nationwide phenomenon known as “passing the trash” spawns mostly from union-created work rules and bureaucracy that prioritize adult “rights” and “due process” over student safety and learning.
KUOW broke down how educators have slipped through the cracks in Washington, joining other groups like EAGnews, SESAME, and local news investigations that have laid out the contributing factors in the past.